Claire Tomalin

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Nicolas Walter (review date 15 May 1981)

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SOURCE: Walter, Nicolas. “Shelley Right and Wrong.” New Statesman 101, no. 2617 (15 May 1981): 18-19.

[In the following excerpt, Walter presents a favorable review of Shelley and His World, calling the work “excellent” and “refreshing.”]

Shelley was so wrong about so much. Despite his famous claim, poets are not the legislators of the world, and he was more unacknowledged than most, both during his short life and long after his death. His published books of fiction were dreadful in every sense. His first published book of verse was withdrawn and destroyed because it included a plagiarised poem. His first published work of non-fictional prose got him expelled from Oxford, and helped to drive him away from his family and his class. His first major poem helped to drive him further away and also to drive his children away from him, and got its publishers prosecuted for 30 years. His second major poem had to be withdrawn and expurgated before publication. Few of his later serious writings, in either verse or prose, were published at the time, and most of those that were published were ignored.

His private life was as unfortunate as his public career was unsuccessful. He eloped with two 16-year-old girls, but wasn't happy with either of them for long; he was always flirting with other women, while other men flirted with his wives. Many of his loved ones died or killed themselves in tragic circumstances. He was the heir to a title and a fortune, but himself died in tragic circumstances before inheriting either. Nearly all the things he said and did were in open opposition to all the powers that were. No wonder he was regarded by the establishment as a sort of devil during his life and as a sort of angel after his death, never as a complete person whose life and work, poetry and prose, thoughts and actions, were all of a piece. No wonder he is remembered almost entirely as the author of a few lyrics reprinted in anthologies and recited by schoolchildren.

Yet Shelley was so right about so much, as a few people recognized at the time and as more and more people have realised during the subsequent century and a half. His passion for liberty, equality and fraternity; his hatred of Christianity, monarchy and war; his belief in free thought, free speech and free love: all the things which worked against him at the beginning of the 19th century are working for him at the end of the 20th century. More than almost any other figure in our literature, he speaks more clearly and directly to us now than ever before. The gradual acceptance of Shelley has come from the devoted work of a succession of enthusiastic amateurs and a handful of professional scholars. But there is still no definitive edition of his writings, or even a satisfactory volume of either his poetry or his prose; there wasn't a biography which was both reliable and readable until Richard Holmes produced Shelley: The Pursuit seven years ago. The scholars must look after themselves, though they do seem to take a lot of time and make a lot of trouble sorting out Shelley's life and work, but we should take note of the outsiders who bring Shelley to ordinary readers, as in these two books by people who happen to have close connections with this paper.

Claire Tomalin adds Shelley to a long series of short books on great figures and their worlds. Her well-designed large-format volume [Shelley and His World ], with more than 100 carefully...

(This entire section contains 662 words.)

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chosen and clearly reproduced illustrations and an elegantly written and easily read text, contains just about everything a newcomer to Shelley's work needs to know about his life, though there isn't much about his world. Tomalin has produced an excellent compromise between an elementary pamphlet and a full-scale biography, and she also provides a refreshing dose of sense and sensibility about the various problems and puzzles which have always haunted Shelley studies.

Frances Partridge (review date 31 October 1987)

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SOURCE: Partridge, Frances. “A Short Life and a Restless One.” Spectator 259, no. 8311 (31 October 1987): 34.

[In the following review, Partridge commends the veracity of Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, but concludes that Tomalin's cool, objective tone stands in stark contrast to Mansfield's frenetic life.]

There is a particular pleasure in discovering from his biographer that an artist's character has the same flavour as his work. Turgenev comes to mind. The opposite state of affairs—a wide discrepancy between the two—is less common. One thinks of Wagner, and I wonder if Katherine Mansfield also qualifies. Her rather small output has, rightly in my view, kept its popularity; but the human being who emerges from this last and most careful of her biographies is striking rather than attractive, nor can this be put down to her dreadful struggles against disease, for if anything her character mellowed under suffering, as a pear ripens in the sun.

The child of a prosperous New Zealand banker, Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp was shipped to Queen's College, Harley Street, with her sisters to study languages and music. From her life in Wellington she had gathered material for stories such as The Garden Party, and formed a number of relationships, mostly lesbian, many over-intense or downright silly. At Queen's she acquired a devoted slave in another pupil, Ida Baker, who remained ready to answer her every despotic call for help until the end of her life. Katherine appears to have been a clever, spirited girl, determined to succeed and not too scrupulous how she did so. More than once Claire Tomalin [in Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life] reminds us that she was a liar. Her school career over, she returned to New Zealand homesick for England, and was back in London, after seeing her name in print several times, by the age of 20. ‘I need power, wealth and freedom,’ she declared.

The next act in the drama is pure picaresque. The most restless of beings, always changing house and occupation, she was soon swept into a love affair with a young professional musician, the ‘tall, dreamy and bookish’ Garnet Trowell. They became engaged, but when she found she was pregnant by him she married a different admirer for reasons that are obscure, and crept off alone to Bavaria where the baby miscarried. Events followed swiftly: an affair with a Polish blackmailer, gonorrhoea culminating in an operation for peritonitis, and—of course—Ida to the rescue. It was the apparently much ill-used husband, the man of straw, who introduced her to the editor of The New Age and so to literary London. Katherine was not all hardness and egotism; she was excellent company, a witty talker and attractive-looking, with large brown dog-like eyes. She had many admirers, though it is doubtful whether she was ever deeply in love with Middleton Murry—a man for whom hardly any good words have been written. Claire Tomalin describes it as a childish relationship. They called each other ‘the Tigers’ or ‘Tig’ and ‘Wig,’ quarrelled ceaselessly and noisily, and moved restlessly from house to house for six years before they married in 1918. By this time Katherine's tuberculosis had a firm grip on her, thought by our biographer to be a legacy of gonorrhoea. Its ravages alarmed Murry, who was naturally afraid of contracting the disease, nor did he give her much support in the dreadful years when she was struggling valiantly to get well, seeking the sun, new doctors and treatments, and finally collapsing into Gurdjieff's bogus community, where she died in 1923.

Yet it was this tragic and essentially lonely period that covered her most prolific years. She worked feverishly and with deep seriousness; her standards were high. ‘One must choose the length and sound of every sentence,’ she wrote, ‘the rise and fall of every paragraph, and read it aloud … as one would play over a musical composition.’ Her friendship with Virginia Woolf was on this level—a meeting of minds rather than of lesbians. In her diary Virginia recorded, ‘I lunched with K. M. and had two hours priceless talk—priceless in the sense that to no one else can I talk in the same disembodied way about writing.’ For Leonard Woolf Katherine was ‘a very serious writer … with a superb sense of ironic humour and fundamental cynicism.’ Of her other friends, D. H. Lawrence figured in a prominent and stormy role, but their relationship depended as much on love as it did on quarrelling.

With the optimism of the disease that was killing her, Katherine went on travelling abroad, generally with Ida or alone, and still hoped for health—still had times of intense joy, either in reading Shakespeare and Chaucer, or revelling in the beauty that surrounded her, the colour and scent of flowers. ‘Oh I worship life,’ she wrote to Murry. There is something of a contrast between this feverish, restless life and Claire Tomalin's cool, detached but faithful portrait, like a fine black and white photograph of a highly coloured, ever-moving scene.

Gabriele Annan (review date 17 March 1988)

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SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Going Every Sort of Hog.” New York Review of Books 35, no. 4 (17 March 1988): 28-9.

[In the following positive review, Annan argues that it is “hard to find fault” with Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life.]

Katherine Mansfield's contemporaries, including, though reluctantly, Virginia Woolf agreed that she was brilliant. Woolf, admired her besides for going “every sort of hog,” while she herself remained regretfully respectable. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mansfield is that she managed to construct for herself, a century or at least half a century too late, a classically Romantic career. Born in 1888 into a prosperous New Zealand family and educated for three years at Queen's College, Harley Street, an enlightened London girls' school, she rejected her background, comforts and all, to starve in a succession of European attics and unheatable cottages, to combine a hectic love life with dedication to her work, to make it into the literary and artistic avant-garde of her day, and to die, at thirty-four, of a mixture of tuberculosis and gonorrhea. Even Baudelaire could do no more.

The trouble with Mansfield is that she's exciting without being interesting. Hardly anyone could fail with a biography of such lending-library potential as hers. Claire Tomalin does better than that: it's hard to find fault with her book [Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life]. It is both sensible and sensitive, sympathetic and sufficiently detached, and written with elegance, irony, and humor. She even manages to be fair to Mansfield's second husband, Middleton Murry, a man of letters whom she forced into bed when they were both twenty-three and he should have been finishing his studies at Oxford. Nobody could stand him. “Squirming and oozing a sort of thick motor oil in the background,” he spoiled Virginia Woolf's visits to Katherine.

Tomalin analyzes a number of Mansfield's works as she goes along. In the end her assessment boils down to admiring Mansfield's gift for conveying mood and atmosphere in a manner she calls Post-Impressionist, presumably because of the fragmentation, but which could also be labeled Impressionist for its characteristically vivid way with light, texture, and movement. “The lack of stamina,” says Tomalin, “which prevented her from producing a novel encouraged other virtues: speed, economy, clarity. They became her hallmark, admired and imitated by later writers.”

Tomalin also speaks of her talent for deadpan comedy, agreeing with Leonard Woolf that it was underused. “Murry corrupted and perverted and destroyed Katherine both as a person and as a writer,” he thought. “She was a very serious writer, but her gifts were those of an intense realist, with a superb sense of ironic humour and fundamental cynicism. She got enmeshed in the sticky sentimentality of Murry and wrote against the grain of her own nature.” Not much humor is left in, unless you count the embarrassing mimicry of genteel and working-class speech which makes some passages in her work sound like the party pieces of a snobbish, ill-natured debutante. It's a cheap device. (“Cheap” was Virginia Woolf's recurrent adjective for Mansfield: “I thought her cheap and she thought me priggish.”) Still, it can work, and in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” it does.

“When I was with Lady Tukes,” said Nurse Andrews, “she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah. It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the—on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork. When you wanted some buttah you simply pressed his foot and he bent down and speared you a piece. It was quite a gayme.”

What makes the passage bearable—well, successful—is the nurse's dainty accent matching the dainty horror of what she's describing—both so out of key with the desolate bewilderment of the colonel's newly bereaved daughters. Thomas Hardy liked this story. Mansfield was always being compared to Chekhov (particularly by Murry), but it's hard to see any resemblance except in this one example, unbearably sad but with a passage (not the one about Nurse Andrews) so funny that it makes you laugh out loud.

Deadpan humor turns up occasionally in Mansfield's many stories about children. Children are deadpan people. Unfortunately, Mansfield's understanding that they are sometimes shades into finding them cute. The winsome shadow of Mabel Lucie Attwell looms, and one remembers that Christopher Robin was getting ready to toddle from the nursery soon after Mansfield's death in 1923. The Edwardians and Georgians could be much worse about children than the Victorians; just as soppy, but with a twinkle in the eye.

Mansfield was also quite terrible about the poor, wallowing in a little match girl kind of pathos. “The Doll's House” has a rich little girl inviting two poor children to admire her new doll's house; they are chased away, humiliated, by the rich girl's aunt. It's Andersen's scenario with a different ending. The rich family who give the garden party in the story of that name discover that while it was going on a poor man was dying in a cottage just outside the gate. Appalled, they can think of nothing better than to send down one of their daughters with a basket of leftovers for the mourners. Virginia Woolf also overexploited the poignant contrast between the deprived and the spoiled with Mrs. Dalloway and the wretched Warren Smiths; but not to Mansfield's degree: in “The Life of Ma Parker” (a patronizing title if ever there was one) a “literary gentleman” reduces his poor old charlady to despair by inquiring airily whether her grandchild's funeral “went off all right.” He obviously descends from the heartless courtiers in Oscar Wilde's tear-jerkers “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose.” In her teens Mansfield was dotty about Wilde; she wrote Wildean epigrams and in her diary: “O Oscar! Am I peculiarly susceptible to sexual impulse? I must be, I suppose—but I rejoice.”

This was when she was eighteen and had a crush on a painter called Edith Bendall, who was twenty-seven. Bendall married soon after and always denied that there had been anything sexual in her relations with Mansfield. Reviewing Tomalin's book in The London Review of Books, the New Zealand writer C. K. Stead thought that Tomalin made too much of Mansfield's lesbian inclinations, not just in connection with Edith Bendall, but also in her handling of Mansfield's lifelong relationship with Ida Constance Baker, whom she met when they were both pupils at Queen's College. Mansfield referred to Baker as her “wife,” her “slave,” “the Monster,” and “the Mountain”; all her life she relied on her and exploited her loyalty, moving in on her when she was destitute, taking her money and her furniture when she needed them, and later, when their circumstances were more or less reversed, employing her as a housekeeper-cum-ladies' maid and treating her as a skivvy—no better than the literary gentleman treated Ma Parker. Mansfield was not a nice person. Bertrand Russell (she rejected his advances during a period of hectic popularity with Ottoline Morrell and Bloomsbury) wrote that “her talk was marvellous. Much better than her writing, especially when she was telling what she was going to write, but when she spoke about people she was envious, dark and full of alarming penetration.”

But there was nothing lesbian about Mansfield's relations with Baker, except if her usage of this poor fish was made possible by Baker's suppressed lesbian feelings for her. It does not seem to me that Tomalin overstresses what lesbian elements there were. On the other hand when she shows that D. H. Lawrence may have based the lesbian episode in The Rainbow on things that Katherine had told Frieda about her past—then one does feel a slight weariness at threads spun so fine. It's all part of the problem of finding things to say about Mansfield apart from just retelling her picaresque life.

Still, Tomalin finds one or two things. She is very good on the strong rapport between Lawrence and Mansfield, and also on Mansfield's attitude to men and to feminism. She envied men their freedom of action and of choice, but without wanting to give up feminine trimmings and privileges. Like Gudrun in Women in Love, she wanted to be liberated but went on dreaming of “a rosy room, with herself in a beautiful gown, and a handsome man in evening dress who held her in his arms in the firelight, and kissed her.” Unlike Gudrun, Mansfield was a colonial: and in her case part of the dream (if she shared it) was surely a longing for the gracious living of the Old World.

Mansfield had a use for men, but not much liking or respect. “Throughout her work,” Tomalin says, “men appear as clumsy, emotionally inept, cruel, treacherous, foolish, pompous, tyrannous, greedy, self-deluding, insensitive and disappointing; and the theme of women conspiring against and excluding men is a recurring one.”

Mansfield's diary reveals a very sexy teenager—and not just in the invocation to Oscar. The first of her multinational lovers, when she was eighteen and he nineteen, was her cousin Garnet Trowell, a musician whose family lived in London and naturally befriended her. Trowell made her pregnant. Possibly he never knew he had. Marriage was out of the question: the Trowells had no money and turned hostile when they discovered Katherine's behavior with their son. So she managed—unfortunately Tomalin cannot explain how—to bulldoze a mere acquaintance into marrying her at a moment's notice. This was George Bowden, another musician, but older and better off than Trowell. It was a marriage blanc lasting one night. Katherine returned immediately to Trowell, treating Bowden as badly in the short run as she was to treat Baker in the long.

At least her child would have a name. In the event, the marriage turned out to have been an unnecessary precaution, because Katherine had a miscarriage. By this time she had been separated from Trowell by her mother, who stormed in from New Zealand and carried her daughter off to a Bavarian spa, where she dumped her in a pension. It was an unfortunate move. In Bavaria Katherine met a literary Pole called Floryan Sobieniowski. He introduced her to Chekhov, gave her gonorrhea, and became a sponging incubus on her for the rest of her life. In 1920 he blackmailed Middleton Murry over letters that Mansfield had written to him in 1909. Mansfield told Murry to pay up. Ida Baker provided the cash.

Sobieniowski is Tomalin's key to the “secret life” in her title. She assumes—convincingly enough, though the assumption rests on another: that Mansfield wasn't “completely promiscuous”—that it was Sobieniowski who infected her with the illness that spoiled her life from the age of twenty—long before she contracted tuberculosis; though the tuberculosis got a grip on her because her health was already ruined. In 1910, shortly after separating from Sobieniowski, Mansfield had peritonitis caused by an infected Fallopian tube. The tube was removed: a fatal operation, because it spread the infection throughout her body. From then on she suffered agonizing arthritic pains in her hip and feet, frequent pleurisy, debility, and other nasty symptoms. She had to spend a great deal of time either on or in her bed, “suffering agonies of illness and loneliness combined,” and consumed all the while by her rage to live and to work. It is really because of her dogged determination to go on writing as her life grew cruelly and predictably emptier of pleasure and fuller of terrible pain—all of which is marvelously conveyed by Tomalin—that one develops some sympathy for a woman who seems to have been ruthless and manipulative, though excellent company.

Tomalin's most startling gambit is not to insist that Sobieniowski was the origin of Mansfield's illness but to suggest that when be blackmailed her in 1920 it was not about venereal disease but about plagiarism. In 1909 he gave her German translations of Chekhov stories that had not yet been translated into English. Among them was “Spat' khochetsia.” Mansfield is supposed to have recycled its plot for her own “The-Child-Who-Was-Tired,” published in 1910. This is an old mini-scandal. It was first mooted in 1935, and in 1951 became the subject of a controversy in The Times Literary Supplement, which Tomalin reprints in an appendix. She makes a reasonable case for her theory, but it is hard to care very much, especially since “The-Child-Who-Was-Tired” was suppressed after the first printing (this is part of the evidence) and is therefore almost impossible to come by. Perhaps Tomalin felt that a bit of literary sleuthing would put some zip in her book. She needn't have bothered: it's a first-rate biography anyhow.

Merle Rubin (review date 25 May 1988)

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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Troubled Lives of Two Gifted Women Writers.” Christian Science Monitor (25 May 1988): 20.

[In the following review, Rubin compares and contrasts Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life with Marion Meade's biography, Dorothy Parker.]

An accident of publication dates has connected two women writers, both famous in the 1920s, both highly esteemed as practitioners of their craft, both personally unhappy and self-destructive. Each came from a provincial background to a great metropolis—one from New Zealand to the London of Bloomsbury and D. H. Lawrence, the other from the wilds of New Jersey to the Manhattan of the Algonquin Round Table. Both drifted from affair to affair, from marriage to marriage, all of this taking a terrible toll in terms of health, spirit, and self-esteem.

Apart from the almost simultaneous appearance of these two biographies [Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life and Dorothy Parker], one would not normally think of Katherine Mansfield and Dorothy Parker in tandem. Although they were born within five years of each other, Mansfield died young—in 1923 at the age of 34, while Parker lived on until 1967. Yet there is an underlying similarity beneath their obvious differences: Mansfield's elegiac tone has more than a touch of asperity, while Parker's legendary wit has melancholy undertones.

Both writers are fortunate this time in their biographers, each of these books easily outstripping the previous biographies of their subjects. Claire Tomalin and Marion Meade have written very different sorts of books, the Mansfield life being brisker, slangier, and more impressionistic than the more thorough and detail-laden life of Parker. Yet both biographers share a judiciousness, a scrupulousness, and a talent for hitting the right note in profiling these two difficult, perplexing women. They are aware of the less attractive traits of their subjects—Mansfield's chronic lying, Parker's conspicuous lack of charity toward many people, for instance—yet they neither overplay nor underplay the importance of these qualities. And they never forget the considerable artistic talent that is the central feature of each of these unhappy lives.

Spouses fare very differently in these biographies. Meade's treatment of Parker's husband, screenwriter and actor Alan Campbell, is a model of fairness that seeks to rescue his reputation from the trashing it has taken at the hands of such writers as Lillian Hellman. Meade shows Campbell to have played an important part in Parker's professional life, particularly during the years they worked together in Hollywood.

Tomalin, on the other hand, seems to have taken over Virginia Woolf's dislike for Mansfield's husband, John Middleton Murry, and, in what seems an excess of feminist zeal, not only portrays him as an unsatisfactory spouse, but also cavils at the lengths to which he went to secure his wife's literary reputation.

Both biographies enhance our appreciation of their subjects' literary accomplishments. One may have admired the sardonic wit of Parker's poems and the profound insights of her few but masterly short stories without knowing anything about her life, but one may well find the works less astringent and more genuinely affecting when one sees the misery out of which they arose. Similarly, one admires the artistry of Mansfield's sensitive, supremely evocative short stories all the more when one learns of the personal chaos and suffering amid which their flowerlike perfection was created.

These two biographies arouse a great sense of pity at the waste, as Mansfield wounded herself through a series of entangling personal alliances before her early death from tuberculosis, complicated by venereal disease, and as Parker drank and slept her way through a myriad of binges. But there is the saving grace of what they still managed to achieve amid so much desolation. These fine biographies should encourage many readers to rediscover the literature that these two women, gifted, troubled, troublesome, restlessly straining to be “modern,” left behind them.

Clancy Sigal (review date 29 May 1988)

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SOURCE: Sigal, Clancy. “Unwonderfully What She Was.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 May 1988): 8.

[In the following review, Sigal praises Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life as a “level-headed biography,” but notes that Tomalin tries too hard to portray Mansfield's life as a “feminist tragedy.”]

Only a passionately self-absorbed actress like Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton could do justice to a film of the writer Katherine Mansfield's life when inevitably, alas, it will be made. Only a Streep or a Keaton would be equal to Mansfield's exquisitely neurotic mixture of melodramatic posing, reckless ambition (without quite the talent to match), self-destructive bisexuality and sheer bloody malice. It is a considerable compliment to Claire Tomalin's coolly balanced biography [Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life] that she keeps us wondering right to the end at Mansfield's untimely death what exactly fascinated her contemporaries about this transplanted New Zealander who crashed London literary society only to be destroyed by it.

Today, Mansfield's reputation rests on a small body of short stories, one or two little gems such as “The Garden Party” and “Bliss,” and a darkly sexual myth partly, perhaps mainly, created by her literary Frankenstein and husband, John Middleton Murry. As Tomalin points out, Murry could hardly wait to boil the bones, “puffing and promoting” her stories posthumously just as in life he had foolishly encouraged her “to think that she was somehow a genius simply by ‘being wonderfully what you are.’” Wonderful Mansfield was not. Early on, Tomalin warns us, “Hatred was her favorite emotion.” She was also a pathological liar, a domestic trouble-maker on a truly operatic scale, envious, small-minded and profoundly cruel. She delighted in degrading her lifelong friend and “wife,” the aptly named Ida Constance Baker, to the status of a badly treated servant. She tended to despise those whom she was not temporarily in love with.

Reading Tomalin's level-headed biography, which sees its subject as some kind of trail-breaking heroine because she rebelled so strenuously against male-forged chains of convention, an impatient reader may be tempted to wash his hands of Mansfield and her set, which included both Bloomsbury (Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, etc.) and the D. H. Lawrences.

The literary intellectuals of Edwardian England were often a ridiculous lot, loudly carrying on about “Love” and “Friendship” in capital letters while fumbling grotesquely with their personal lives. The Lawrences and Mansfield and her husband desperately sought tenderness and inspiration from one another while helplessly and sometimes cheerfully stabbing their beloved ones in the back. (If for no other reason, Mansfield should be remembered as the model of the cynical feminist “Gudrun” in Lawrence's novel “Women in Love.”) But there is also something comically heroic about their efforts to put flesh and blood on what were then subversive ideas, such as women's suffrage, marriage reform and sometimes stupid, sometimes brave, attempts at sexual self-knowledge.

Tomalin's book only partly convinces me that there was something more to Mansfield than her reptilian nature. She'd had the bad luck to contract gonorrhea, with all its horrid complications, and TB (possibly from Lawrence), which enfeebled much of her life. At the same time, her best stories were written in a kind of a fever toward the end. Her worst luck was in choosing a husband on whom she was hopelessly dependent, but for whom she felt contempt, and who repaid her with a most subtle revenge: exalting her reputation after death beyond what even she would have claimed for it. I think Tomalin is suggesting a feminist tragedy here. Maybe. If so, the ultimate restitution will be in our returning not to Mansfield's life but to her work, which at its best had a splendid, malicious pathos.

Sydney Janet Kaplan (review date July 1988)

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SOURCE: Kaplan, Sydney Janet. “Rescuing a Reputation.” Women's Review of Books 5, nos. 10-11 (July 1988): 18-19.

[In the following review, Kaplan offers a positive assessment of Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, concluding that Tomalin's book improves upon previous Mansfield biographies by Antony Alpers and Jeffrey Meyers.]

Katherine Mansfield was born on October 14, 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand. It is fitting that Claire Tomalin's long-awaited biography [Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life] should appear this year, the centennial of Mansfield's birth. Katherine Beauchamp (Katherine Mansfield was her pen-name) had a comfortable, privileged childhood as the third daughter in a family of four girls and one boy. Her father was a powerful figure in Wellington, a self-made man who left school at fourteen and eventually became the director of the Bank of New Zealand. Her parents had the foresight—even if it was mainly for social rather than philosophical reasons—to ensure that their daughters were properly educated. Kathleen and her two older sisters were sent to London in 1903 to attend Queen's College, an advanced institution for the education of young women. After three years in London, the Beauchamp sisters returned to New Zealand, but Kathleen was determined to escape from the restrictions of family, colonial life and bourgeois social conventions. She wanted an artistic career and she knew that she needed to be in London to achieve it.

She returned to London in 1908, setting out with a small allowance from her father, to establish herself as a writer. She had some early successes—some stories were published in the leading journal, New Age. Her first book, In a German Pension, appeared in 1911. Two collections appeared later—Bliss and Other Stories (1920) and The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922). Other collections of stories, her letters and her Journal were published posthumously.

After a turbulent period of experimentation and upheaval in her personal life, Mansfield settled into a relationship with the critic John Middleton Murry, who became her husband in 1918. Their marriage was intense and filled with conflict; they spent long periods apart, especially in the last years when Mansfield went abroad in search of a climate more compatible with her advancing illness. Her life was productive, eventful and short—tragically short. She died of tuberculosis in 1923 when she was only 34 years old.

While feminist criticism has produced an enormous number of studies of the life and work of Virginia Woolf, it has done much less with Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield's contributions to the development of modern fiction largely have been taken for granted. Her innovations in the short-fiction genre preceded those of Virginia Woolf (especially those of the “plotless” story, the incorporation of the stream of consciousness into the content of fiction and the emphasis on the psychological “moment”) and have been absorbed and assimilated—often unconsciously—by writers and readers of the short story.

Mansfield never was one of the “lost” or “neglected” women writers rediscovered by feminist critics. Her stories have often been included in college anthologies of fiction; if anything, she was the anthologists' token woman. Her predominant use of irony and her insistence on organic unity in fiction made her writing especially amenable to the methods of the New Critics. That scrutiny ensured the continuity of her reputation, but also guaranteed that her work would be treated in isolation from its social, political and historical contexts.

The initial problem for feminist criticism was to rescue Mansfield from everyone's assumed familiarity with her. To do that it was necessary to have reliable biographical data to counter the prevailing view of her place in modern literature. She also needed to be rescued from years of popular legend as a kind of Camille. This latter problem was compounded by her husband's role in creating that legend: after Mansfield's death, John Middleton Murry began to devote a large part of his own career to the editing of her work. He brought out unfinished stories she had never intended for publication; he organized her letters; and he created the document that had the greatest critical influence: the Journal of Katherine Mansfield (published by Knopf in 1927). Murry also wrote many articles—actually testimonials—about their relationship, and allowed these to become sentimental, maudlin and finally untrustworthy as portraits of a real woman. Claire Tomalin pointedly remarks that “unable to control her while she lived, Murry could not resist manipulating her after her death to fit the pattern he preferred.”

The publication at the end of the 1970s of two fully-researched biographies of Katherine Mansfield by Antony Alpers and Jeffrey Meyers altered Murry's portrait of Mansfield, revealing the complexity of her life, her nonconforming sexuality and the difficulties in her relationship with Murry. These books changed the popular conception of Mansfield, but their interpretations of many details of her life seemed to call out for feminist analysis.1 Claire Tomalin's new biography is a start in the right direction.

While Tomalin does not articulate her analysis of Katherine Mansfield's life in terms of feminist theory, she does center it in her own identification with Mansfield as a woman. Commenting about her decision to resume working on the biography after putting it aside when Alpers' and Meyers' books appeared, Tomalin notes that:

I am of the same sex as my subject. It may be nonsense to believe that this gives me any advantage over a male biographer. Yet I can't help feeling that any woman who fights her way through life on two fronts—taking a traditional female role, but also seeking male privileges—may have a special sympathy for such a pioneer as Katherine, and find some of her actions and attitudes less baffling than even the most understanding of men.

(p. 2)

That “special sympathy” makes itself felt in numerous ways throughout this beautifully written, thoughtful book.

Ultimately, every biography is also a work of “fiction.” In its selectivity it makes a narrative out of the chaos of any given life. It tells a story, and that story is as much a product of its author's impulses and values as it is of its subject's. Tomalin's “story” of Mansfield's life is one about an imagined companion, a person she might have enjoyed knowing, one who, in spite of her volatile personality, would have been a treasured friend: a friend mourned for her early death and terrible suffering, admired for her struggles against a fatal illness and for her drive and conscientiousness as a writer, her determination to continue to use her talents to the very end. These responses to Mansfield are those of a biographer who looks at her subject from a position of equality. This position is not often occupied by Mansfield's previous two biographers, who sometimes appear condescending to their subject and seem to consider her sexuality as deviant or symptomatic of deep-seated psychological problems—though at one point, Anthony Alpers admits: “But these are all guesses, and only a man's guesses. …”

Mansfield's male biographers' “stories” reveal their discomfort with her youthful struggles for independence—a discomfort most apparent when they describe her first experiences as a woman alone in London after her arrival from New Zealand in 1908. Meyers writes:

Katherine's first adult year in Europe was a disastrous period of her life and confirmed all her father's fears. Her violent rebellion against Harold's values was an acknowledgment of his power and influence over her, the reluctant homage of disobedience to authority. Within ten months of her arrival she had had an unhappy love affair with one man, conceived his illegitimate child, married a second man and left him the next day, endured a period of drug addiction and suffered a miscarriage. Though Katherine was afraid of her uncontrollable feelings, she believed she had to “experience” life before she could write about it. But her raw emotion was only thinly veiled by a pose of sophistication, and she abandoned herself to a destructive sexual extremism that expressed both her craving for and her repudiation of men.

(p. 36)

I wonder what Meyers would have said about a young male artist's sexual activity? Sexual experimentation by young men usually is seen as a sign of positive growth, but “destructive sexual extremism” becomes the label for a young woman's insistence on non-virginity! (“Drug addiction,” incidentally, turns out to be only a pathetic dependence on Veronal, prescribed for insomnia—a “treatment,” by the way, frequently given to women at the turn of the century.)

Most revealing is Meyers' assumption that Mansfield's complex and serious-minded questioning of patriarchal standards of feminine behavior—her journal entry in May, 1908, for instance: “It is the hopelessly insipid doctrine that love is the only thing in the world, taught, hammered into women, from generation to generation, which hampers us so cruelly” (quoted by Tomalin)—is “an acknowledgement of [her father's] power and influence over her.” Instead of considering Mansfield's recognition of her own sexual needs, Meyers establishes the father's position as more important than the daughter's; hers is primarily reactive. In this way female sexuality can be interpreted—yet again—as the passive response to male authority.

While Meyers entitled his chapter on this period of Mansfield's life “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” and Alpers named it “‘Experience’ and Its Price” in his first biography of Mansfield in 1954, Tomalin situates Mansfield's first days in London under the heading “London 1908: New Women.” This shift in emphasis makes a great difference. Tomalin recognizes that Mansfield's experience was not anomalous, that she “sailed towards London in the summer of 1908 in the joyous mood of the successful rebel” and that she was entering a society “in which the patterns of Victorian life were being thoroughly shaken about, and none more vigorously than the pattern of Victorian womanhood.”

Tomalin introduces us to a London in which the women's movement for suffrage had reached its height, where newspapers and journals were filled with articles debating the changes in women's roles and opportunities and were taking up such issues as marriage reform, the sexual rights of women and the question of compulsory motherhood. How Katherine Mansfield tried to find a place for herself in the midst of that creative tumult, how she became a part of the artistic-literary world of the early modernists—as a contributor to the iconoclastic journal, New Age, and through her friendships with D. H. and Frieda Lawrence, Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Woolf—and how she struggled to perfect her writing through years of increasingly debilitating illness, are flawlessly conveyed in this fine book.

Tomalin carefully describes Mansfield's education at Queen's College, her subsequent struggle to achieve independence from her wealthy, colonial family, her loves and friendships with other women and her ultimately unsatisfactory relationship with John Middleton Murry. Although she also discusses the negative effects of Mansfield's belief in “experience” as a prerequisite for artistic creativity, Tomalin recognizes more fully than either Alpers or Meyers the feminist implications of Mansfield's quest: “for it was largely through her adventurous spirit, her eagerness to grasp at experience and to succeed in her work, that she became ensnared in disaster. Her short life, so modern and busy, has the shape of a classic tragedy.”

One of the strongest sections of the book is Tomalin's treatment of Mansfield's medical history. She understands the difficulties of women who shattered sexual conventions at a time before reliable methods of birth-control and antibiotics were available. (It's not coincidental that Tomalin is also the author of a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, that great feminist writer whose career, like Mansfield's, was ended prematurely: for Wollstonecraft it was death in childbirth.) Tomalin makes a convincing case for the theory that Mansfield's tuberculosis was the end-result of a process that began years earlier when she contracted gonorrhea, probably from Floryan Sobieniowski, a Polish writer, with whom she had an affair in 1909. Misdiagnosed and mistreated, gonorrhea attacked her body, producing painful illnesses of her joints and heart, and lowered her resistance to a new, more deadly invader: the tuberculosis bacillus.

There are many other strengths to this book. Tomalin's refusal to psychologize is refreshing and invigorating. She does not search for some trauma in Mansfield's childhood to account for her spirit of adventure, her bisexuality, or her refusal to conform to conventional gender roles. It is not that Tomalin ignores such familial matters as the daughter's relationship with her emotionally distant mother or her rebellion against her father's values and his control of the family through money and social position. (Interestingly, Tomalin devotes much less space to Mansfield's father than either Alpers or Meyers.) But she interprets these familial interactions within the larger framework of social history, and especially of the history of middle-class English women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That grounding in social reality, combined with Tomalin's gift for conveying the mood and spirit of individual incidents in Mansfield's life, make this a fascinating and moving book.


  1. Jeffrey Meyers, Katherine Mansfield: A Biography (New York: New Directions, 1980); Antony Alpers, The Life of Katherine Mansfield (New York: Viking, 1980). Alpers' book is a complete revision of his earlier Katherine Mansfield: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1954).

Anne L. McLaughlin (review date fall 1988)

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SOURCE: McLaughlin, Anne L. “Out of the Milk Jug.” Belles Lettres 4, no. 1 (fall 1988): 17, 19.

[In the following review, McLaughlin compliments Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, but regrets Tomalin's failure to fully examine the implications of Mansfield's illness on her psychological perspective and work.]

Katherine Mansfield, who virtually created the modern short story in English, once wrote that she felt “like a fly who has been dropped into the milk jug.” After her death in 1923 at the age of thirty-four, Mansfield's husband, John Middleton Murry, dropped her reputation into a milk jug of sentimentality through his criticism and editing of her work. In the last eight years, three major biographies have struggled to fish Mansfield's reputation out. The most recent, Claire Tomalin's Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, presents this elusive life story with a compassion and clarity that avoids the milk jug entirely.

Building on earlier biographies by Antony Alpers and Jeffrey Meyers, Tomalin describes Mansfield's New Zealand childhood; her father, a self-made banker; her mother, an aloof hypochondriac; and the matriarchal household in which she grew up as a fat, bespectacled, third daughter with three sisters and a brother. Feeling trapped in colonial Wellington, Mansfield persuaded her father to allow her to sail for London before her twentieth birthday. In 1908, London was full of radical social change, which Mansfield embodied heroically, as Tomalin points out. She became pregnant by one man, married another, left him the first night, and went to Bavaria to have an illegitimate child. She miscarried, wrote a series of stories, and had an affair with Floryan Sobieniowski, a Polish writer.

Here Tomalin contributes new and important material to Mansfield's story. Using medical records and interviews, she presents evidence that Mansfield contracted gonorrhoea from Sobieniowski, a disease that afflicted her with gonorrheal arthritis and made her particularly susceptible to tuberculosis. Tomalin believes that Sobieniowski knew that Mansfield had freely adapted a Chekhov story and had published it as her own, since he blackmailed her years later. Tomalin sees this affair as the start of a terrible chain of events for Mansfield, as a curse that shadowed the rest of her life.

Mansfield returned to London, where she began to publish her stories and met John Middleton Murry, the young critic and editor, who became her boarder, her lover, and finally her husband in 1918. By then the couple were frequently separated, for Mansfield was seriously ill with tuberculosis and had embarked on a restless search for the perfect climate or cure—a search that took her finally to the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau, where she died.

Tomalin discusses the strong impressions Mansfield made on the works of such writer friends as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence. Woolf confessed that Mansfield's work was the only writing she had ever been jealous of and felt that “probably we had something in common which I shall never find in anyone else.” Tomalin explains that although Murry was in love with a myth of Mansfield, she was equally in love with a myth of him; neither knew the other realistically, and neither could tolerate deviations from the myths they had devised. The domestic peace for which Mansfield longed kept eluding her: Murry was frequently remote, physically or psychically; they lived in a succession of temporary flats and houses; and Mansfield was unable to bear a child. The terrible waste that Mansfield's illness made of her talent is saddening, yet her enormous courage and commitment inspire.

Unfortunately, Tomalin does not speculate on the implications that her new biographical data may have for the interpretation of Mansfield's work and creative processes. Mansfield's gonorrhoea must have contributed to the themes of disgust with sex and child-bearing that move through many of her stories. Her preoccupation with the secret lives of her characters may well have been intensified by a guilty awareness of her hidden disease. That disease must have made her New Zealand childhood seem more remote than ever, convincing her that, despite her pangs of homesickness, she could never return. She must have known that the only way she could preserve and possess her early memories was to write them down. She did so with such an extraordinary combination of nostalgic tenderness and unsentimental clarity that “Prelude” and “At the Bay” remain two of the most beautiful stories of family life in English. The shame of Mansfield's early plagiarism might help to explain why her work lacks a cumulative quality and seems instead to leap forward, then to sag, then to leap again.

Despite the lack of discussion of the implications of Mansfield's gonorrhoea and plagiarism on her work, this is a remarkable biography. Tomalin has discovered vital new parts to this complex life and has pieced them together into a sympathetic, yet objective, whole. She has not only lifted Mansfield out of the milk jug of sentimentality, she has cleared the way for new readings of her stories and new thoughts about how they evolved.

Donna Rifkind (review date autumn 1988)

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SOURCE: Rifkind, Donna. “Live Fast, Die Young.” American Scholar 57 (autumn 1988): 628-32.

[In the following review of Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life, Rifkind provides a summary of Mansfield's life and finds shortcomings in Tomalin's feminist perspective and overestimation of Mansfield's artistic commitment.]

Katherine Mansfield's brief literary career yielded only a collection of short stories, some letters, and a private journal, yet her position in the pantheon of English letters is surprisingly solid. Many critics have in fact considered that position to be unjustifiable. Mansfield's friend D. H. Lawrence insisted “she was not a great genius. She had a charming gift, and a finely cultivated one. But not more.” George Orwell was less generous, maintaining that her short fiction followed the formula of “a pointless little sketch about fundamentally uninteresting people, written in short flat sentences and ending on a vague query.” Mansfield herself once complained, “I am tired of my little stories like birds bred in cages.”

Her champions have been as vocal as her detractors. Virginia Woolf remarked that Mansfield's was the only writing she had ever been jealous of. Carson McCullers was said to have read a volume of Mansfield's stories literally to pieces at the library in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia; Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Ann Porter, and Eudora Welty also claimed to have been significantly influenced by her. Mansfield's most ardent supporter was her husband, the editor and critic John Middleton Murry, who was convinced she was a genius. It was largely through Murry's efforts that her reputation reached the heights it did; after her death in 1923, he engineered a virtual Mansfield cult, issuing heavily edited volumes of her letters, journals, and stories, and promoting her as a saintly figure whose short life was chastely devoted to her art. “She should have her rightful place,” Murry gushed, “as the most wonderful writer and most beautiful spirit of our time.”

Such uxoriousness is especially touching or particularly amusing—depending on one's own attitude toward Murry—when one considers the actual behavior of this beautiful spirit, who once referred to her husband as “a little mole hung out on a string to dry.” Given to childish tantrums, she was no picnic to live with; she and Murry spent long periods of their marriage away from each other, and both sought consolation in the affections of other people. Katherine Mansfield's life was remarkable for the way she went about repelling most of her friends and family with her destructive—and ultimately self-destructive—behavior. Part of the interest in her work comes from the reckless character of her abbreviated life: if she had managed to live past the age of thirty-four, one cannot resist wondering, would she have settled down and accomplished great things as a writer? Like Rupert Brooke and Stephen Crane, Mansfield tends to provoke sentimental rhapsodies about immature talent and early death. But the larger part of the fascination in Katherine Mansfield is the titillation of discovering what a bad girl she was, how very much she differed from Murry's “child withouten stain,” as he referred to her in a maudlin poem written after her death.

Two previous biographies have tried to make this discrepancy clear. (A volume issued in 1933 by Ruth Elvish Mantz is not usually included with the others, having been co-written with Murry and including material only up until Katherine began her association with Murry, when she was twenty-four.) The first book, by Antony Alpers—who is considered the premier authority on Mansfield's life and who, like Mansfield, is a New Zealander—was published in 1953 and re-issued in an expanded edition in 1980; the second, by Jeffrey Meyers, was published in 1978. A new volume has recently appeared, [Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life,] written by Claire Tomalin, a former literary editor of the New Statesman and the London Sunday Times and the author of books about Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mrs. Tomalin's biography of Mansfield is not essentially more illuminating than those by Mr. Alpers or Mr. Meyers, except for providing more detailed information about Mansfield's medical history. However, as she claims in her introduction, because Mrs. Tomalin and Mansfield are of the same sex, she

can't help feeling that any woman who fights her way through life on two fronts—taking a traditional female role, but also seeking male privileges—may have a special sympathy for such a pioneer as Katherine, and find some of her actions and attitudes less baffling than even the most understanding of men.

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life differs most from its predecessors, then, in allowing what one might call a creeping feminism to pervade its pages: while Mrs. Tomalin avoids the hallmarks of feminist criticism—the academic jargon, the wrangling about victimization—here and there throughout the narrative are hints that she believes Mansfield ought to be considered something of an emblematic woman, that her faults ought therefore to be excused, and that only other women can be truly sympathetic to her fate. “If she was never a saint,” Mrs. Tomalin writes, “she was certainly a martyr, and a heroine in her recklessness, her dedication and her courage.” What shall one believe about Katherine Mansfield—was she indeed a martyr, and if so, toward what cause? Or was she, as Mrs. Tomalin seems to counter-argue, a bold incarnation of the New Woman and a modernist who made valuable contributions to the art of the short story? Was she a scared, self-hating, immature rebel who protected herself with a brash attitude and an allegedly unbreakable commitment to Art? Or was she a peculiarly empty young woman, unsure of having any personality at all, who tried on different identities as if they were costumes?

Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, to a prosperous banker and his cool, distant wife. “Kass” was a difficult child—the third of five—tending toward anger, jealousy, and fat; she seemed resentful of her luxurious childhood circumstances and longed to escape them. In 1903 she was permitted, with two of her sisters, to attend school in London, which she enjoyed even though most of her school-mates disliked her. There she began to develop a taste for Oscar Wilde and the other writers of the Decadent school, she used her gifts for mimicry to set herself apart, and she seems to have had a few homosexual attachments, although exactly how involved she became in any of these is a matter of some conjecture. At seventeen she returned to New Zealand, but her hatred for her parents' bourgeois life and for the expectations they had for her reached a peak: “The idea of sitting and waiting for a husband is absolutely revolting,” she wrote to a friend. “I just long for power over circumstances.”

Meanwhile she was starting to write morbid little stories, dutifully typed by her father's secretary. One was published in a Melbourne literary monthly. In 1908 she succeeded in persuading her father to let her return to London, a most exciting place at that time for a young rebel newly escaped from the colonies: the suffragette movement was boiling, literary modernism was beginning to revolutionize English letters, the intellectuals of Bloomsbury and Garsington were becoming famous. Kathleen took up residence in a hostel for music students in Paddington—she had not yet decided whether to be a musician or a writer—and resumed some of her London friendships: with Ida Constance Baker, a school chum who developed an obsessive devotion to Kathleen and who lived either with her or at very close range for the rest of her life; and with a family of musicians named Trowell, whose son Garnet Kathleen chose as her first lover.

In February of 1909 Kathleen suddenly married George Bowden, a man she knew only slightly. The marriage did not last through its first night (though they were not officially divorced until 1918), and the next day Kathleen went off to find lodgings by herself. It is apparent that she married Bowden because she was pregnant by Garnet Trowell. Mrs. Beauchamp rushed over from Wellington as soon as she heard about the marriage, and after assessing the situation she hurried her daughter off to a spa in Bavaria and left her there. Kathleen had a miscarriage, then busily began an affair with a Pole named Floryan Sobienowski. This 1910 liaison marked the beginning of her life as an invalid, for she contracted gonorrhea from Sobienowski, which went untreated long enough to become systemic, causing an endless series of painful arthritic and rheumatic episodes and, Claire Tomalin convincingly suggests, leaving her vulnerable to the tuberculosis from which she began to suffer a few years later.

Kathleen returned to London without Sobienowski but with a batch of stories she had written about the Germans in Bavaria. Some of them were published by the vivacious left-wing literary magazine New Age, edited by A. R. Orage, for which Arnold Bennett wrote a weekly book column. Kathleen, who had begun calling herself Katherine Mansfield, started going to parties dressed in exotic costumes—Japanese kimonos, Russian garb—and receiving guests to tea on the floor of her barely furnished sitting room. Mansfield's love of drama, costumes, and role-playing has led Mrs. Tomalin to consider that a “secret” Katherine lived inside the masquerading exterior; thus the reason for the subtitle to her biography—A Secret Life. While Mansfield did love to perform, at various times earning money for dramatic readings given in the style of Ruth Draper, and later working as a film extra, and while she was fond of calling herself by different names (Kass, Katie, K. M., Katharina, Katiushka, and so on), Mrs. Tomalin's subtitle is perhaps more than a bit disingenuous. It leads readers to believe that she has discovered new information about Mansfield, which she has not, and it is also inappropriate because her own narrative proves what a remarkably consistent, unsecretive personality her subject had. Mansfield made a habit of running away from situations which made her uncomfortable, yet the running itself was a redefinition of her one authentic, stubborn, scared character; it was not at all evidence of secret selves. All the costumes and theatrics in the Folies-Bergère could not disguise the desires and fears of so voluble a personality as Katherine Mansfield, as three biographies have by now made clear.

The only person who tried—unsuccessfully—to keep Mansfield's nature a secret was John Middleton Murry. When Mansfield met him in December of 1911 he was still an Oxford undergraduate, a year younger than she, editing an avant-garde magazine called Rhythm, to which she began contributing stories. In April 1912 he moved to London where he became her lodger and, shortly thereafter, her lover. From that point on their relationship became an elaborate dance toward and away from each other; for each seemed to be fascinated by an ideal vision of the other while easily dissatisfied with the reality. First they edited Rhythm together from their flat, then separated; first they made friends together—the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, D. H. and Frieda Lawrence, Edward Marsh, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell—then they fell out with them, or used their separate allegiances with these various people to hurt each other. They bought a house in the country, then went bankrupt and gave it up; they spent weekends, together or apart, with the groups at Garsington and Bloomsbury, a summer in Cornwall with the Lawrences, winters on the Riviera. They seemed alternately to charm and to disgust the people with whom they became acquainted. Virginia Woolf described a visit to Katherine with “Murry squirming and oozing a sort of thick motor oil in the background”; on another occasion Woolf commented about Katherine: “Part of her fascination is the obligation she is under to say absurd things.”

In 1917 the Woolfs' Hogarth Press published “Prelude,” Katherine's best story, which is about her New Zealand childhood. At the end of the year she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and she fled the panic-paralyzed Murry, traveling with Ida Baker to France, ignoring her doctor's orders to enter a sanatorium. The Germans inconveniently chose this time to bombard Paris, making Mansfield a hostage there for some weeks. When she was at last able to cross the Channel, she married Murry on May 3, 1918, the day after her divorce from Bowden was made final.

Soon afterward, however, “acknowledging [Mrs. Tomalin writes] that her presence seemed to torture her husband more than her absence,” Mansfield went to Cornwall without Murry, who had a job as a translator with the War Office. The back-and-forth dance continued: Murry was offered the editorship of the weekly magazine Athenaeum; Mansfield, increasingly ill, left for the Italian Riviera on the advice of a worried doctor, then to a nursing home in Menton, France, then back to England, where she resumed and strengthened her friendship with Virginia Woolf. In September 1920 she returned to France with Ida, sending book reviews to Murry for the Athenaeum along with letters criticizing his editorial judgment. In May 1921 she was in Switzerland, while Murry was lecturing at Oxford. By this time her several published story collections had secured her some degree of celebrity, but it was her illness and not her career that chiefly occupied her and determined her movements.

She became interested in mysticism as a means of curing the body, specifically in the teachings of Piotr Ouspensky. In October 1922 she decided, in a desperate attempt to regain her health, to join the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff's colony, the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, at an abandoned monastery near Fontainebleau. She lived there until January of 1923, enduring freezing conditions, exhausting kitchen work, and Gurdjieff's ramshackle philosophizing. (One of his “treatments” for her consisted of building her a loft above the cow shed, where she was told to sit and inhale the cows' breath.) On January 9 Murry answered her summons to come to the Institute, for it was clear she had not long to live. That night, running up the steps to her room, she set off a fatal hemorrhage.

After her death Murry began his campaign to re-invent Katherine, causing many who had known her to feel repugnance for what they thought was an embarrassing and exploitative emotional display. In fairness to Murry, who was neither a good writer nor a good editor, but who did have a genuine love for literature, it seems probable that if he had not capitalized on Mansfield's reputation, somebody else would have; the story of her life had too much sentimental appeal to be ignored.

Everything Mansfield did after she became ill with tuberculosis in 1917 had a feverish quality—was clearly the behavior of a sick person. The friendships she formed with D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and others were intense and intimate, as if she was aware they would not last long. But her breaks with these friends were equally intense, fostered either by insults and rages (she called Lawrence's wife Frieda “a huge German pudding”; Lawrence in turn called Mansfield, according to Murry, a “loathsome reptile”; she regularly abused the tender, vigilant Ida Baker) or by a freezing indifference. Her darting back and forth from England to the Continent seems almost hysterical, as if she were trying to leave her illness behind. She picked up and dropped the often helpless Murry as if he were a hat. Clearly it was not sex, or ambition, or rebellion, or revenge that guided Mansfield's behavior (although all of these preoccupied her at one time or another)—it was physical disease that shaped her life and cut it short at age thirty-four. Claire Tomalin makes repeated claims that Mansfield's devotion to her art was foremost in her thoughts at all times, and surely Mansfield herself would have preferred this to be true. But Mansfield was not born with the constitution to concentrate on fiction for long periods of time, and her steadily worsening illness made that kind of concentration impossible.

The stories, interestingly, bear no sign of the feverishness that was characteristic of Katherine Mansfield's actions. Placid even when they are cruel, rather flat in tone and going fuzzy around the edges in the stories about her childhood, they might perhaps have benefited from some of the urgency and passion of her daily existence. Her work has been compared with Chekhov's, but it has none of Chekhov's lucidity and depth. The best stories, like “Prelude,” are fragile and fine, with a rainy-spring-afternoon mood. Most of them seem inauthentic and unfocused—poor proof that Mansfield was the innovating modernist so many have claimed her to be.

Undoubtedly it is her tragic life, more than her tepid work, that compels our interest in Katherine Mansfield. She had bright promise and a complex personality, knew famous people, behaved unwisely, and died too young. While this certainly does not make her a martyr or a heroine or an emblematic woman, one does not necessarily have to be a woman or a literary expert to be sympathetic to her story. The emotional tone of her life can be appreciated by many different sorts of people; combined with a bit of talent, it has, in Katherine Mansfield's case, proved to be of endless biographical interest. In modern literature, if you live fast and die young, apparently you don't even need a particularly good-looking corpus.

John Mortimer (review date 3 November 1990)

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SOURCE: Mortimer, John. “Mystery of the Young Passenger.” Spectator 265, no. 8469 (3 November 1990): 40-1.

[In the following review, Mortimer commends The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens as an engaging “work of literary detection.”]

‘A lady who had been upon the stage from her earliest childhood. … once said to me, “Oh, but I have never forgotten the time. … when my baby brother died, and when my poor mother and I acted three nights … with the pretty creature lying upon the only bed in our lodging before we got the money to pay for its funeral.”’ When Dickens made this speech at a charitable banquet of the Theatrical Fund none of his listeners knew how close his association with the Ternan family was. Thomas Ternan, an Irish actor who achieved a good deal of success before he became insane, married Fanny Ternan, who had played Desdemona to Kean's Othello. Their three daughters, Fanny, Maria and Ellen, all performed professionally from their earliest years, and it was little Thomas Ternan who, when the family fell on evil days, lay dead in the lodgings while his mother and elder sister went out to put on the greasepaint and spangles and glitter in the gaslight. It was Ellen, the youngest, who became Dickens's secret love, the young girl kept in a cottage in Slough. She was either set on a pedestal for the unblinking adoration he reserved for many of his fictional heroines or, as some people, including Thackeray, suspected, became his mistress and, perhaps, the mother of his child.

Whatever the precise truth of the matter, Dickens continued to shroud it in mystery. Whether innocent or not it was hardly consistent with his role as an upholder of family life, nor would it have been readily understood by his huge public and the multitude of readers of Household Words, which he edited. In pursuit of the facts Claire Tomalin has written a work of literary detection [The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens] as fascinating, in its way, as The Quest for Corvo. She has also dealt with the varying effects of the Victorian demand for respectability on writers, and the splendours and miseries, mainly the miseries, of being an actress in the middle of the last century. She tells with great clarity and with much sympathy and understanding the story that Dickens would never have cared, or indeed dared, to write.

Actresses, when the Ternans trod the boards, didn't only work in appalling conditions. The stinking lodgings, the rats behind the scenery, the long and dangerous walks home down muddy roads from the theatres, the miserable pay, all this was bad enough. What must have hurt more was the fact that they were treated as social pariahs. The Encyclopaedia Britannica for 1797 had said that the exercise of ‘agreeable and beautiful’ talent by an actress was considered ‘a sort of public prostitution.’ Thackeray was able to write in a novel, ‘You knew that this person was on the stage and you introduced her into my son's family. Pack your trunks, viper!,’ and, as late as 1898, Clement Scott wrote, ‘It's nearly impossible for a woman to remain pure who adopts the stage as a profession.’

Not that the Ternan sisters were not thoroughly respectable, and they lived to escape the social disabilities of their profession. Fanny married Trollope's brother and settled in the fairly grand Villa Ricorboli outside Florence, Maria became a foreign correspondent and Ellen, after Dickens's death, the wife of the Reverend George Robinson who ran a private school in Margate; there she gave charitable readings from the works of her former friend.

They had met when Dickens engaged her to take part in The Frozen Deep, a melodrama he had written with Wilkie Collins. It was one of those extraordinary theatrical occasions for which he found the time and energy and in which he played the lead, apparently to mesmerising effect. It is clear he fell desperately in love with her, clear also that their meeting coincided with his apparently callous rejection of his marriage, the symbolic bricking up of the door which gave his wife access to his bedroom. It is a time of his life when Dickens appears at his least attractive, as in the moment when he sent his bewildered 16-year-old son off to Australia, comforting the boy with the thought that, ‘Life is full of partings and the pain must be borne.’ He was not the first successful middle-aged man to become somewhat unhinged by the love of a young woman with whom he hoped to recapture his lost youth. And the 18-year-old Ellen and her mother were no doubt swept away by the friendship of a brilliantly entertaining, world famous genius who could also act.

It was the time of Dickens's close association with Wilkie Collins, who kept two mistresses, one of whom used to entertain his men friends in her negligée. George Eliot contrived to live in what was then known as ‘sin’ with great candour. Dickens's immense popularity, and the public who saw him as the spirit of Christmas present, made such honest behaviour impossible. He was trapped, as so many writers have been, in the character he had invented for himself. He was not the Dickens of Dingly Dell, and probably never had been. He was the author of such dark masterpieces as Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, in which the shadows are lit by flashes of angry humanity. If he had been able to come to terms with himself he might have come to terms with his love for Ellen Ternan. As it was, he covered it with a web of secrecy which reached its most absurd moment when he was caught, with Ellen and her mother, in a dramatic train crash after which he ministered to the casualties. ‘Two ladies were my fellow passengers,’ he wrote when he described the incident, ‘an old one and a young one.’ For the sake of Dickens's invented personality Ellen and her mother had lost theirs.

Did they do it? Peter Ackroyd, in his long and exciting life of Dickens, decides that they did not and that Dickens would have treated Ellen as though she were as perfectly untouchable as Lucy Mannette in A Tale of Two Cities, who is modelled on her. Claire Tomalin accepts the contrary evidence. Dickens's son Henry told Gladys Storey that Ellen had been his father's mistress and ‘there had been a child.’ Ellen dropped heavy hints to a vicar in Margate, and it seems unlikely she was merely boasting. Kate Dickens also seems to have told Mrs Storey that her father and Ellen had a ‘son who died in infancy.’ Most convincing to me is the behaviour of Ellen's son Geoffrey, a man of some culture who had a long career in the army. When he started to go through his mother's possessions he went to see Henry Dickens and after their meeting he destroyed all his mementoes of her and never mentioned her name again. Finally, Claire Tomalin has analysed, from Dickens's pocket diaries, the length and frequency of his visits to Ellen's cottage in Slough. Dickens was a man of strong sensuality and enormous charm; it seems unlikely that, in the deepest secrecy, he wouldn't have behaved just like his friend Wilkie Collins.

Whether they made love or not seems, in this strange and sad story, irrelevant. Dickens caused as much trouble to himself and his family as if he had, and she, whatever their relationship, was condemned to a life of secrecy. Perhaps she had never set out to be an actress or the mistress of a genius, but these were the roles she was offered, and she accepted them. Did she love him? This, for all the evidence now disinterred, is something we shall never know.

Claire Tomalin's book is a small work of art, a story which would be well worth reading even if it did not concern the hidden life of our greatest novelist.

Merle Rubin (review date 25 February 1991)

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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Revisiting Dickens (and Friend).” Christian Science Monitor (25 February 1991): 13.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin offers a positive assessment of The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.]

Charles Dickens was an instinctive Romantic who focused his powerful and intensely poetic imagination on the grim realities of lower- and middle-class urban life in the heart of the 19th century. As his most recent biographer, Peter Ackroyd, points out, Dickens possessed in full degree the 19th century novelist's confidence in the writer's ability to describe the real world in all its solid detail. Yet for Dickens, Ackroyd claims, “nothing was real until it was written down; … in the act of composing them [his novels] they were more real to him than anything surrounding him in the actual world.”

Like Wordsworth, Dickens believed that childhood perceptions and experiences serve as a touchstone for evaluating all that comes later. But where Wordsworth understood how the intensity of a child's imagination slowly “fades into the light of common day,” recaptured only in privileged moments of memory and feeling, Dickens seems to have carried into adulthood many of the intense emotions, the insecurity, the extreme sensitivity, moodiness, and alternating bursts of warm generosity and blind egocentricity that had characterized his boyhood. When he looked at the real world “realistically,” what he saw was a reality deeply colored by his own strong subjectivity. The power of his fiction comes from this interplay.

Dickens was a passionate, driven, almost demonic man, a contradictory bundle of harshness and sympathy, sincerity, and self-elusion. …

On the vexing question of Dickens's secret 12-year relationship with the young actress Ellen Ternan, which lasted from his 45th year until his death in 1870, Ackroyd asks us to shed out late 20th century presumptions long enough to consider the possibility that Dickens was speaking the truth when he claimed it was chaste.

There is something refreshing about Ackroyd's refusal to assume that Dickens was simply a conventional Victorian man leading a double life and lying about it. But there is evidence that two of Dickens's children knew that Ellen Ternan had borne him a child who died, which rather puts an end to the idea of a chaste brother-sister, father-daughter relationship.

There is no question that Ellen, or Nelly, as she was called, was the last, longest, and most serious of Dickens's infatuations with younger women. It was his love for this girl, 27 years his junior, that helped precipitate his separation from his already estranged wife, who had borne him the 10 children who established his popular image as the home-loving Victorian paterfamilias.

Biographers and critics have been divided about Nelly, as they have been about the nature of the love affair and the question of the child who died. Was the young actress “a mercenary minx or a doll-like victim”? Claire Tomalin's crisply written study, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, poses the question somewhat facetiously, but never loses sight of how difficult it is for any biographer to see into the heart of his or her subject. Her Nelly is an intelligent but far from extraordinary woman who was exhilarated, honored, and in many ways trapped by the love of an extraordinary man.

As Tomalin reminds us, theater people occupied a dubious position in Victorian society: Actresses were considered to be little better than prostitutes, yet their ladylike stage manners were thought to be exemplary. The theater also offered women one of the few ways of having a career in which their talents might be exercised and rewarded.

Nelly's secret relationship with Dickens took her off the stage (unlike some other members of her theatrical family, she was not an especially gifted thespian), and her subsequent marriage to a clergyman further deepened her desire to conceal her theatrical—and sexual—past.

Without making undue presumptions, Tomalin recreates the interesting and somewhat precarious world of Nelly, her mother, and her talented sisters, Maria and Funny, in a lively and intelligent biography that is also a neat little slice of social history. Tomalin, incidentally, shares biographer Fred Kaplan's view that the relationship was consummated, although Katharine Longley, the scholar to whom Tomalin dedicates her book, shares Ackroyd's view that it was not.

Dickens's love for Nelly was part of his lifelong fascination with the theater, an art form that was not at its best in Victorian England. Fortunately, his genius for creating character, his ear for the idiosyncracies of the spoken word, and his strong sense of drama found their way into a form that was reaching a new high point in his time. And if the 19th century was an age of great novels, Charles Dickens is one of the major reasons why.

Frederick Busch (review date 31 March 1991)

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SOURCE: Busch, Frederick. “Lives Acted Out in Secrecy: How and Why Nelly Ternan Became the Mistress of Charles Dickens.” Chicago Tribune Books (31 March 1991): 4.

[In the following review, Busch praises Tomalin's skill at constructing a biographical portrait in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.]

The story of Ellen Lawless Ternan is quiet, fascinating, poignant—and minor. Yet it probably matters more, in the immensities of history, than your story or mine. For Nelly, as she was called, can be seen as something of a source for Charles Dickens' Estella in “Great Expectations,” his Bella Wilfer in “Our Mutual Friend” and his Helena Landless in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” She may well have been pregnant twice by Dickens, and she surely was his mistress for 13 years.

Dickens shared the secret of their relationship only with those he needed to trust. While there were, inevitably, rumors, he fought them in person and in print, rewriting reality in the world as he did on the page. For her part, Nelly kept their secret even after Dickens died, at age 58. They met when he was 45 and she 18, the same age as one of his daughters.

With the complicity of the Dickens family, Nelly revised her life. She became 10 years younger, she married a cleric turned school owner. She became pregnant and gave birth to her first two children. She was apparently devoted to Dickens' work, and had been, she claimed, something of a god-child to him, though they had never afterward been close, she said. And she had never been an actress in a family of actors and actresses. That was the life she eventually “wrote.”

Claire Tomalin, biographer of Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Katherine Mansfield, has told Nelly's story with thoroughness and grace [in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens]. She is Nelly's advocate, taking personally the goal she suggests while writing of Nelly's grave: “The cross that once surmounted Nelly's (burial plot) had broken off and vanished, and the only greenery was a single encroaching arm of bramble, like an admonishment. Quite soon, by the look of it, the grave was likely to disappear altogether.”

It is to prevent the disappearance that Tomalin follows in the footsteps of literary detectives like Gladys Storey, Ada Nisbet, Una Pope-Hennessy and Felix Aylmer, who had also tracked Nelly Ternan. Her work, and her predecessors', is not about gossip; it is about a woman who, while shaped and maybe warped by a genius' life, helped in turn to shape his.

Because Nelly's family were theater folk, Tomalin opens with a fascinating examination of 19th Century theatrical life, especially with regard to the lives and hardships of its actresses. She points out that what made the theatrical world so appealing to Victorian men were “the reasons which made the Ternan sisters escape from and deny it: it existed outside the world of Victorian middle-class values. … It appeared to be sexually emancipated.”

Nelly, however, appears not to have been highly sexed, while Dickens was, one infers. As if fated to overwhelm her, he closed in on her life.

When he was preparing a benefit performance of “The Frozen Deep,” a play written by his friend Wilkie Collins and edited by him, Dickens engaged, as was often done by amateurs, the services of the Ternan sisters and their mother. So, in 1857, Dickens died onstage as Wardour, a self-sacrificing man who had conquered his evil aspects, in the arms of a Ternan sister. Nelly's character was named Lucy; when Dickens wrote “A Tale of Two Cities,” his Sidney Carton died as nobly as Wardour, and his impossible beloved was named Lucie.

From that night, Dickens pursued Nelly. He was of inestimable service to the Ternans, whose husband and father was dead. Mrs. Ternan accepted his services and, clearly, made possible the wooing of her daughter. The secret lives began.

Dickens began to rewrite—to intimate friends and to the worshipful public—what had been his weary patience with, and affection for, a less and less glamorous Catherine Dickens, who had borne nine live children and who adored her husband. He complained about her care of the children. He condemned their mutual past as well as her present behavior. And finally he forced her out, and away from her children, humbling and humiliating her while protecting Nelly. In his own magazine and in The Times, Dickens rumbled about his long suffering and the cruel error of “most grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel” rumors “involving not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart.”

The champion of home and hearth, the creator of adoring doll-women and noble husbands, extended his will from the book to the world. Thereafter, Nelly was installed in a flat in London and later in a house she came to own. Through clever ruses, Dickens managed to be abroad, alone, when Mrs. Ternan and Nelly were overseas; when they came home, he found reasons for needing to dash back to London. He became a spy in his own life, an underground man who simultaneously lived the life of England's, and maybe the world's, most talked-about writer.

Mrs. Ternan either approved or couldn't resist, and the same must be said for Nelly. Once she had become a part of Dickens' life, and of necessity had made her own life a secret—for Dickens seemed always to lack the courage to make their relationship a love declared—then she could never surface with him unless she betrayed him.

Tomalin speculates that “where he was eager for release from the conventions and hypocrisies of British middle-class society, she wanted to leave behind the equivocal world of the theatre in which she had been reared. …” And the Dickens-Ternan story—in which so many friends and family members destroyed so many documents as part of the cover-up—clearly tempts the biographer and her readers to make connections where there are only vacancies between the certainties so well-ferreted by Tomalin.

After Dickens' death, no longer enmired in the long-running role of the Victorian Fallen Woman, Nelly acted a new role: the schoolmaster's virtuous wife, the doting mother, the estimable public woman. And in that role, she is rather uninteresting; she mattered most, it seems, when she was most a secret.

While she helped her husband run his school, Nelly befriended Rev. William Bentham, an adorer of Dickens' work. Here the secret slithers forth; here Nelly matters again. For she confided in the older man how she had been established by Dickens in a house where he visited her two or three times a week. She told how she'd come to feel remorseful about their relationship, and how her remorse had made them both miserable—for Dickens seems to have been in a fever of middle-aged love, while Nelly tells Bentham that she “loathed the very thought of this intimacy.”

She comes to life on her own at the end. Her beloved son Geoffrey, home from a long, hard war in 1920, studies the papers she'd left him. Nothing she'd said of her life was in accord with what he read.

He sought out Dickens' only surviving son, Sir Henry Dickens, and asked him if his mother had been Dickens' mistress. Sir Henry said that she had. “For the rest of his life,” Tomalin writes, “(Geoffrey) would not have any book by Dickens in the house; he would even switch off the radio if the name were mentioned.” That sad vulnerability and perhaps pompous shame was the residue of Nelly's fiction and the essence of the factors that possibly drove her to Dickens and then to lying about her life.

There are hints in Tomalin's notes of a word or two that may yet come to light. But until they do this biography will be our source concerning “the small figure of the undistinguished actress half hidden at the edge of the Dickensian panorama.”

Garry Wills (review date 16 May 1991)

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SOURCE: Wills, Garry. “The Angels and the Devils of Dickens.” New York Review of Books 38, no. 9 (16 May 1991): 8, 10-11.

[In the following excerpt, Wills commends The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, despite the flaws he sees in Tomalin's interpretation of Dickens's fascination with younger women.]

Nicholas Nickleby was adapted for the stage, almost immediately after it was written, by the kind of theatrical troupe that figures in Dickens's novel as the Crummleses. One actual family of the time, with a pronounced Crummles aspect, was led by Thomas Ternan, who married an actress he had worked with on the road, Fanny Jarman. They had three daughters, each of whom worked her way up in the profession, from “infant phenomenon” to pants roles to ingénue, learning how to sing, dance, articulate, ingratiate, and scrape by. The Ternans were on a bill with Nickleby before the novel's serialization had been completed. They had a fascination with Dickens arising from the fact that their most prestigious moments in the theater had been some engagements with the great Shakespearean actor William Macready, who was one of Dickens's closest friends.

After the death of Thomas Ternan, Fanny worked to raise her daughters decently in their raffish profession's middling range of parts. Actresses in general were still socially suspect—an attitude Dickens had long protested, since his own desire for a theatrical career, only partially satisfied until he created the art form of his public readings, made him idealize hard-pressed professionals who keep their self-respect in squalid surroundings. So both parties were pleased when the theater brought them together, the Ternans with their embattled female proprieties, and Dickens with his popular novelist's power to shape the theatrical world that fed his imagination.

They met in 1857, when Dickens needed professional actresses to replace his daughters, who had been performing as amateurs in The Frozen Deep, a play Wilkie Collins and Dickens collaborated on for some charity performances. Dickens played the lead male role, a man who sacrifices himself for a rival who wins the heroine—it was a role he adapted for Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Fanny Ternan played a Scottish family nurse, and her daughter Maria was the heroine for whom Dickens performed his sacrifice. But the forty-five-year-old Dickens was captivated by the youngest daughter of the family, the eighteen-year-old Ellen, called Nelly, who accompanied her mother and sister, though she had no part in the drama.

In a short time she became the drama, as Dickens publicly separated himself in a cruel and accusing way from his wife, who had borne him ten children, and privately set up an intimate life with Ellen, his new “little Nell,” that was furtively maintained until his death, twelve years later. Ellen Ternan was a secret kept from the Dickens public, one that his friends and family kept out of the biographies and published letters. Only in this century did her story emerge, stoutly resisted for a long time by sentimental Dickensians. As recently as the 1940s a key document turned up—the only diary Dickens was unable to destroy, since the had lost it—that chronicles the extent of his double life, partly carried on in the public spotlight, partly with Nelly in her various establishments in England or abroad.

Ellen Ternan is “the invisible woman” of Claire Tomalin's fascinating book [The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens]. Though she emerged, after the death of her imprisoning benefactor, to a second life as wife and mother, little is known of her years with Dickens. Tomalin tries to create a plausible reading of her attitude, during that time, from what is known of her life before and after the long silent period with Dickens. This book shows how much we have learned from feminist criticism about the constraints women lived under in the nineteenth century. Fanny Ternan's struggle to keep her daughters together as a family, to educate them in unorthodox ways but toward socially conformist goals, is traced in the lives of all three daughters Maria, the oldest daughter, achieved a conventional marriage, but walked out on it—with Tomalin's cheer leading approval—to become an independent woman journalist in Italy. She was helped there by her sister Fanny, who had lived a sentimental romance by becoming, first, the governess of Thomas Trollope's daughter at Adolphus Trollope's Italian villa, and then the wife of Adolphus. (Thomas and Adolphus Trollope were brothers to the novelist, Anthony—and all of them were friends or acquaintances of Dickens, in that hub of patronage for the whole Ternan family that grew up around the secret affair with Nelly.)

Nelly herself had been ill at various points in her life with Dickens—from pregnancies, miscarriages, or the loss of infants, according to Tomalin's guesswork—but she emerged from that period looking young enough to remove her “lost” years from the calendar. She married an Oxford divinity student twelve years her junior and presided over the boys' school she helped him run. She gave school and community readings from Dickens's work, but kept the secret of her relationship with the great man from both her children—only after her death, going through her papers, did her son begin to have suspicions and start asking for more information.

In lives of Dickens, Ellen Ternan is a peripheral figure, considered only for what she tells us about his creative life. Tomalin wants to reverse this priority, and in doing so she gives us a good picture of the theatrical profession and its equivocal relationship with the social, literary, and “bohemian” aspects of Victorian England. But the mystery of the twelve years' silence still depends in great part on understanding Dickens. Nelly's reaction to his attentions can only be speculated on if those attentions are understood, at least partially.

Here Tomalin's book is very weak. She describes Dickens's fascination with “fallen women” and innocent adolescents, but neglects Nelly's most important predecessor, Mary Hogarth. She never recognizes how closely Dickens's treatment of the Ternan family resembled his earlier treatment of the Hogarths. In each case, he dazzled and protected a woman with three daughters. In the earlier situation, he married one of the daughters (Catherine), but idolized the younger sister, Mary, who came to live with them. Mary's early death prostrated Dickens, who made a cult of her memory and meant to be buried with her. Then an even younger Hogarth daughter, Georgina, took over the Dickens household, and continued to preside over it after Catherine was sent into exile. So close was Dickens's relationship with Georgina that he had been suspected of incest even before the Ternan scandal arose. A good deal of his comic indignation over the invasion of his privacy was fueled by the defense of Georgina's reputation.

Tomalin misses the dynamics of the situation because she thinks Dickens was referring to the publicly non-existent Nelly Ternan when he published an ugly letter about his breakup with his wife:

Two wicked persons who should have spoken very differently of me, in consideration of earned respect and gratitude, have (as I am told, and indeed to my personal knowledge) coupled with this separation the name of a young lady for whom I have a great attachment and regard. I will not repeat her name—I honour it too much. Upon my soul and honour, there is not on this earth a more virtuous and spotless creature than his young lady. I know her to be innocent and pure, and as good as my own dear daughters.

The young lady referred to is Georgina, and the two “wicked people” are her mother and sister. Georgina sided with Dickens at the breakup of his marriage. His hapless wife had every reason to resent the love he had lavished on her sisters, and to suspect more than he was conceding. Georgina went so far, at this point, as to be examined by a doctor who would testify that she was virgo intacta!

Would Ellen Ternan have come out of such an examination with the same verdict, at Dickens's death? Claire Tomalin is having none of that; but Peter Ackroyd thinks so, and some of the attendant circumstances point in that direction. Georgina, who continued to preside over Dickens's public household, showed no resentment of Nelly's secret status, and neither did Dickens's most independent and protective daughter, Katey. They seemed to understand Dickens's odd cult of young innocent girls, like Georgina's dead sister (and Katey's aunt), Mary.

Dickens liked to be the object of female devotion. He exercised his mesmeric power over female “subjects” in ways that deservedly bothered his wife. He had two “harems” of eight fascinated female subjects in the Hogarth and Ternan families. In both cases, Dickens was a patron of all the females, advancing their interests and in both cases the less devoted fell away or were partly disillusioned, making Dickens feel “betrayed.” Only Georgina and Nelly, from each menage, stayed true to the end. This is not the picture of an independent woman Claire Tomalin would like to find in the “invisible” Ellen Ternan, but it is hard to imagine Dickens maintaining the relation unless she had been at least as submissive as Georgina. Hillis Miller notes that Dickens regularly associated death with young girls and the country. He moved his young idol, Nelly, to the country and stayed with her even when, unlike his fictional Nell and his idealized Mary, she lived into womanhood.

Hermione Lee (review date 10 June 1991)

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SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “The Man Who Didn't Sleep.” New Republic 204, no. 23 (10 June 1991): 35-8.

[In the following excerpt, Lee offers a positive review of The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, which she compares to Peter Ackroyd's simultaneously published biography of Dickens.]

When Peter Ackroyd's 1,200-page biography of Dickens appeared in England, a friend of mine, a biographer herself, wanted to read it on a plane journey to Ireland. It was obviously unmanageable as hand-luggage, so she put it on her kitchen table, got out her bread knife, and sawed it in half. “It made two perfectly serviceable biographies,” she observed. The bread knife school of criticism seems a particularly appropriate one to apply to a biography about a divided soul. Ackroyd's Dickens is a double agent so full of secrets, paradoxes, and contradictions that only the most puzzling and provisional conclusions can be reached about him, even after those 1,200 pages.

We have always known that Dickens's novels are crawling with doubles and secrets—false names, hidden plots, mislaid identities. Other biographers before Ackroyd—Fred Kaplan, Edgar Johnson, even the devoted John “Podsnap” Forster (none of whom Ackroyd has much time for)—have described Dickens's curious paradoxes. He was rampageously energetic and obsessively orderly, theatrically exhibitionist and nervously private, a family man and a clandestine lover, a dogged quarreler and a sentimental friend. All very English.

But Dickens was no ordinary Englishman. “Keep it down” is the peculiar motto of two of the male characters in Our Mutual Friend, his last finished novel, and a book full of secrets and doubles. Bradley Headstone, the murderous schoolteacher, tries to “keep down” his monomaniacal passion; John Harmon, alias John Rokesmith, the mutual friend, has to “keep down” his true identity. So did Dickens “keep down” his conflicting selves, most notoriously in his attempts to hide his secret love life (if that's what it was) with the actress Ellen Ternan under the mask of the moral family man, even after he had brutally evicted Catherine, his wife of twenty-two years. Like many of his characters, Dickens covered his tracks, burned diaries and letters, and became extraordinarily adept at disappearing acts.

Claire Tomalin [in The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens] approaches Dickens's doubleness more reprovingly than Ackroyd, and describes him “perfecting a way of life which allowed him freedom to come and go as he chose, always living in more than one place, and sometimes with three or even four semi-permanent addresses, quite apart from his reading tours and working trips.” In Our Mutual Friend, there is much gossip about the Man from Somewhere (“Man from Nowhere, perhaps?” as the mutual friend is described at one point). Dickens's desire to be the Man from Nowhere involved, for long periods in his life, exhausting and elaborate arrangements—four secret days a week, late-night journeys, subterfuge trips to the office, fake appointments. (As Tomalin observes, all this depended heavily on the expanding rail network, which was a great boon to Victorian adulterers.)

Given this passion for doubling and splitting his life, it's alarmingly appropriate that when the clash between love for Ellen and resentment of Catherine became intolerable to him, he ordered the marital bedroom to be divided in two by a wooden partition. What strikes Ackroyd about this is not the frightful humiliation it caused Catherine. He remarks, rather, upon the symbolic rightness of it: “He was … literally sealing himself off from her.”

But Dickens's secret lives were not only—or, according to Ackroyd, not much—bound up with sex. He suppressed the humiliations of his now famously miserable childhood (blacking factory, debtor's prison) under the busy noise of success; and he buried his morbidness and melancholy under the gregarious joviality his admirers wanted from him. It was, for a time, an all-too-successful subterfuge. “If you could make the public understand,” his daughter Kate wrote to Bernard Shaw, “that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.” …

For a more convincing modern reading of Dickens's secret life, we need to go to Tomalin's biography of his “invisible woman,” a plausible, elegant, and ingenious piece of historical sleuthing that marshals the same evidence to support an entirely different reading. All of Dickens's biographers have had something to say about the famous 45-year-old novelist's romantic infatuation with the 18-year-old actress. With her sisters, Ternan appeared in his production of Wilkie Collins's The Frozen Deep, and Dickens became besotted with her. There ensued the scandalous and very public separation from Catherine, the mysterious visits to France in the early 1860s, the dramatic train crash in Kent that revealed that Dickens was traveling with Ellen and her mother (and his manuscript of Our Mutual Friend, which he rescued by coolly climbing back into the wrecked carriage), the little establishment he set up in Slough under the name of “Mr. Tringham.”

Tomalin and Ackroyd read this evidence very differently. The differences are often, intriguingly, matters of detail. When Dickens, protesting his innocence over his separation from Catherine, refers to the slandering of “a virtuous and spotless creature,” Tomalin assumes it's Nelly; Ackroyd says he “clearly” means his sister-in-law Georgina, whom some people suspected of illicit relations with her brother-in-law, and whose name Dickens was anxious to clear. Ackroyd dismisses the possibility that Ellen's mother would have allowed her daughter to be turned into a “harlot.” Tomalin sympathetically imagines how difficult it would have been for the mother to turn down the “seemingly limitless benefits and favors” that the novelist offered her family. Ackroyd is much more skeptical of the posthumous evidence, but Tomalin sees no reason to discredit the slow accumulation of handed-down rumors that gradually crept out from under Dickens's—and Nelly's—lifelong efforts at concealment.

Evidence is always at the mercy of the biographer, and Ackroyd is determined that his Dickens should be a repressed romantic. But if they weren't lovers, as one English reviewer remarked of Ackroyd's chaste view of the relationship, what did they do, have tea? Tomalin's more straightforward, indignant, feminist reading certainly makes a firmer, and probably more believable, case. Shifting the emphasis from Dickens to Ternan, she argues not only that they had an affair, but that Ternan may well have had two illegitimate children who died young. (Her carefully assembled evidence even includes the suggestion that the fashion for huge crinolines allowed for hidden pregnancies.) Tomalin imagines Ellen coming to resent her elderly lover and her concealed, marginalized status as a “kept woman,” and writes eloquently on Nelly's release into a new life after Dickens's death, on her need to keep her past a secret, and on the shock to her son (vividly reconstructed) when he began, after his mother's death, to discover her true past.

Where Ackroyd romanticizes, Tomalin indicts. Her Dickens is a monster of self-deceiving egotism. She is much more severe on his treatment of his wife and family. Poor little Plorn, for instance, a “not very bright boy” of 16 packed off to Australia, is the cue for an attack on Dickens's ruthlessness and his “complete domination” over his family, whereas Ackroyd takes the occasion to dwell on Dickens's extraordinary outburst of grief—guilt, or fear of death?—at Plorn's departure. Tomalin's sympathies are all for the women—“poor Catherine,” “poor Nelly”—and she makes a stylish and determined effort to turn Ellen Ternan into an interesting heroine.

The difficulty is that Nelly does not match up to Maud Gonne, Nora Barnacle, or Alice James, those other recently disinterred great men's idols, wives, or sisters. Tomalin complains that Dickens's version of Nelly in A Tale of Two Cities, where she appears as Lucie Manette, is a golden-haired, blue-eyed, perfect blank; and she puts this down to his general incompetence in characterizing women, who are mostly, she says, about as sexual as wax fruit. (This doesn't do justice to his brilliantly imagined neurotics and rebels, such as Tattycoram and Miss Wade in Little Dorrit.) But what evidence there is suggests that Ellen wasn't very characterful, and she tends, in spite of Tomalin's best efforts, to remain somewhat invisible.

What is wonderfully vivid in Tomalin's book, however, is her account of the hard lives of Victorian women actresses, who had freedom of a kind but were all too often treated as prostitutes, and had to work tirelessly. One of Tomalin's examples, a provincial actress named Charlotte Deans, “ran away from a prosperous home to marry an actor and spent seventy years tramping the north of England and Scotland as a strolling player,” with ten children by her first husband and seven by her second. With relish and energy, Tomalin also brings other remarkable women to light, such as Caroline Maynard, the “fallen woman” whom Dickens helped as part of his work, part philanthropic and part voyeuristic, with Miss Burdett-Coutts at “Urania Cottage,” his home for “unhappy” girls. Tomalin makes much more of her than Ackroyd does, bringing to life the dignity and intelligence of this minor character.

She also draws lively portraits of Ellen's more interesting sisters. It seems that Dickens fixed on the most malleable and least challenging of the Ternan girls. Both Fanny and Maria Ternan had promising acting careers: Fanny, a firm character, married Trollope's brother and became a novelist and biographer; Maria left a boring husband at 35 and became a redoubtable traveler and journalist, going off alone to Italy, Egypt, and Africa. The three sisters remained close friends and conspired to keep the family secret. Their solidarity provides a heartening contrast to this unhappy story of obsession and concealment.

Tomalin's elegant, coherent, original book, fired by a feminist analysis, has more obvious current appeal than Ackroyd's messy, inconclusive, and repetitive biography. Still, for all the exasperation that Ackroyd's book inevitably evokes, it stands as an awkward but ambitious attempt to come to grips with a great writer. We may prefer to read the ingenious disinterring of a hidden woman's story, rather than an idiosyncratic new version of the genius who exploited her. And Tomalin's book is certainly skillful and enjoyable. But Ackroyd's cluttered and contradictory biography is, I believe, the more important, even if there were times when I could have happily taken the bread knife to it.

David Cannadine (review date 20 October 1994)

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SOURCE: Cannadine, David. “Odd Union.” London Review of Books 16, no. 20 (20 October 1994): 35.

[In the following review, Cannadine offers a mixed assessment of Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, noting that Tomalin's documentation is “inadequate.”]

The task of rescuing women from the chauvinistic condescension of male posterity has thus far been unevenly undertaken and incompletely accomplished. Writers and actresses, suffragettes and nuns, servants and prostitutes, have fared relatively well. But upper-class women—Clio's own sisters, cousins and aunts—have received much less attention. Studies of aristocratic ladies are few and far between; feminist biographies of queens and princesses are in conspicuously short supply; and royal mistresses have rarely been emancipated from the boudoired and bodiced banalities of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. Yet from the Restoration in 1660 until the early 20th century, the only English monarch who was both male and monogamous was probably King George III. Put the other way, this means that from Nell Gwyn to Mrs Keppel (and beyond), the courtesan was an integral part of royal history. But while much is known about such women as the Duchess of Portsmouth, Elizabeth Villiers, Henrietta Howard and the Countess of Warwick, no serious attempt has yet been made to write that alternative version of royal history which their lives and loves collectively constitute.

In any such account, the life and love of Dora Jordan would occupy a place both ample and ambiguous. It would be ample because for more than twenty years she was the consort of the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, bore him ten children and lived with him in a state of domestic happiness and connubial bliss. But it would also be ambiguous because before, during and after this well-known, much publicised and highly controversial royal liaison, she was a self-made career woman and a self-supporting working mother. For Mrs Jordan was the greatest comic actress of her day—adored by theatre-goers in London and the provinces; acclaimed by Hazlitt, Byron and Coleridge; cartooned by Gillray, Cruickshank, Rowlandson and Dent; and portrayed by Romney, Beechey, Hoppner, Matthew Peters and John Russell. Nor has she been entirely forgotten by posterity. To be sure, she was not even mentioned by name in Percy Fitzgerald's two-volume life of King William IV, published in 1884. But she merited an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, there were two early 20th-century lives, her correspondence with the Duke of Clarence was edited and published by Arthur Aspinall, and in 1965 Brian Forthergill produced a lengthy and appreciative study of Mrs Jordan as an actress.

Why, then, has Claire Tomalin, a biographer who excels in the recovery of the lives of lost women, sought to tell again a story [in Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King] which has already been more than thrice-told? One clear reason is that, notwithstanding the more tolerant attitude of the 20th century, she still regrets the way in which some prudish, moralising, hypocritical Victorians sought to pretend that Dora Jordan had never existed. Another is that she is thoroughly dissatisfied with the unsympathetic attitude towards her heroine adopted by such right-royal writers of an earlier generation as Roger Fulford. And she is no less critical of the condescending tone that characterised Aspinall's highly selective edition of Mrs Jordan's letters, which also unduly influenced subsequent writers (notably Brian Fothergill) who depended on them. Above all, Tomalin wishes to bring alive, as no one else has yet done, a remarkable female personality, with a strong and distinctive voice, whose life was more dramatic than any of the parts she played, whether on the stage or off it, and which still possesses the power to captivate, to move, to shock and to anger.

Like her near contemporaries Sarah, Siddons and Elizabeth Farren, Dora Jordan was born (in 1761) in humble circumstances, but with strong theatrical connections. Her parents, Grace Phillips and Francis Bland, were unmarried and her mother was herself an actress. When Dora was 13, her father disappeared, and not long after, she made her first appearance on the stage in Dublin. She was soon taken up by Richard Daly, an unscrupulous theatre manager, who seduced her, and by whom she bore her first child. By then, she had left for England, and was working for Tate Wilkinson's Yorkshire theatre company which travelled the northern circuit. Between 1782 and 1785, she established herself as a provincial actress of rare natural ability: tireless, quick to learn, brilliant at comedy and with a remarkable capacity to establish a close rapport with her audience. It was only a matter of time before London beckoned, in the shape of Sheridan's theatre at Drury Lane. Long before the decade was out, Mrs Jordan had become to comedy what Mrs Siddons was to tragedy. She was well-paid, and the talk and the toast of metropolitan Whig society. She also encountered the second villain of her life, one Richard Ford, by whom she had three more-illegitimate children. Then, sometime in 1789, she met Prince William, Duke of Clarence, the third of George III's seven surviving sons.

This generation of royal males was notoriously described by the Duke of Wellington as being ‘the damndest millstones about the necks of any government that can be imagined.’ Their father wanted them brought up to adorn the royal line and to serve their country faithfully, and to that end he sent most of them abroad into the armed services. But in reaction to the King's devoted and decorous domestic life, they drank, gambled, womanised and piled up mountainous debts, which Parliament was regularly called on to pay. To make matters worse, they were obliged by the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 to obtain their father's consent when selecting a bride. The theory was that this would prevent them from contracting inappropriate unions, but, in practice, it had precisely the reverse effect. Some, like the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex, married clandestinely, with embarrassing and disastrous consequences. Others, like the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Kent, took long-term mistresses—not, as was usually the case among royal men, in addition to the wives they had tired of, but rather because it was too difficult to find an acceptable wife at all. So, from 1791 until 1811, this was the surrogate role which Mrs Jordan played for (and with) the Duke of Clarence.

At first glance, it was an odd union. She was shrewd, successful, self-supporting and widely acclaimed. He was dull, boorish, a failure in his career in the Royal Navy and shared fully in his brothers' general unpopularity. She had three surviving children by previous liaisons; he had none. For most of their time together, it was Dora who went out to work (a quite unprecedented thing for a royal mistress to do), while the Duke stayed at home. And while he gave her an annual allowance, she also helped to pay off some of his perpetually increasing debts. So this was hardly a relationship based on the conventional gender roles of strong, assertive, public husband, and weak, submissive, domestic wife. Instead, she provided the loving, experienced, resourceful mother-figure which so many of George III's sons, starved of maternal affection, seem to have sought (she was four years older than the Duke); while he offered her a position in society which, though not unimpeachable, was certainly better than anything she could have established for herself. And so they settled down to two decades of domestic harmony, largely spent at Bushy Park near Hampton Court, during which time she bore the Duke ten children, the Fitzclarences.

But in 1811 this gemütlich existence came abruptly to an end. For reasons (or non-reasons) which are not entirely clear, the Duke decided he had had enough of Mrs Jordan, and turned his attentions to a young heiress named Catherine Tynley Long, in part no doubt because he hoped her fortune might help pay off his debts. She refused him, but by then Clarence had formally separated from Dora. He made financial provision for her and also for the children he had fathered by her. But he never wrote to her or met her again, and although she had ample reason to feel herself ‘a most injured woman,’ the need to provide for the offspring of her two earlier liaisons obliged her to continue to work on the stage. Her popularity remained undimmed, and she could still earn a handsome living. But the profligacy of her first-born children and their in-laws-meant she soon found herself unexpectedly and heavily in debt. Fearful of arrest, with her energy flagging and her health failing, she fled the country in August 1815, and went into exile in France. Ill, impoverished and friendless, she was dead within less than a year. The Duke of Clarence seems not to have mentioned this to anybody, and in July 1818, he married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen.

The details of Mrs Jordan's life have been well known for a long time, but Tomalin triumphantly succeeds in saying—and in seeing—much that is new and worthwhile. In part she does so by her mastery of the context, brilliantly recreating Dora's milieu—sometimes out of Tom Jones, sometimes from Vanity Fair—in which royalty and politicians mixed with actors and actresses, in a fin de siècle atmosphere heavy with assignation, infidelity, betrayal and revolution. In part she does so by her characteristically skilled control of the narrative—constantly keeping Dora in the foreground, but always ensuring that the other figures, especially the Duke of Clarence, receive the attention they deserve. Above all, she takes Dora seriously as a woman in ways that previous royal writers (all, incidentally, men) never did: a woman who in her early days on the stage was vulnerable to predatory theatre managers; a woman who in later years had to bring up her children while at the same time continuing her stage career; a woman who was eventually cast aside and left to die without a single gesture of ‘love, friendship, imagination and simple decency’ from the man whose life she had enriched and whose children she had borne.

Whether Tomalin fully succeeds in bringing Mrs Jordan herself to life is more open to question. One problem is that the documentation is so tantalisingly inadequate. There are no letters from Dora before she began her liaison with the Duke, and thereafter we have only her side of the correspondence. The result is that her formative years can be viewed only from the outside, while the relationship with Clarence never fully catches fire. Another puzzle is that, like many actresses but more than most, Dora assumed and projected such an array of varied identities that it is not apparent who, if anybody, she actually was. She was a great comedienne whose life ended in tragedy. Her theatrical repertoire ranged from Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal to Rosalind in As You Like It. She played women, breeches-part men, and women dressed up as men—and all of these even when heavily and visibly pregnant. She was portrayed by Hoppner as ‘The Comic Muse,’ by Romney as ‘The Country Girl,’ and by Sir William Beechey as a patrician lady of great estate. And at different times, she was known as Dorothy Bland, Miss Francis, Mrs Jordan, Mrs Ford, Nell of Clarence, Mrs James and Dorothée Bland. Amid such a plethora of images, her ‘real’ identity remains elusive.

Indeed, as the long-term partner of the unmarried Duke of Clarence, who continued to earn her own living for most of the time they lived together, it is not clear that she was a royal mistress in the conventional sense of that word at all. Despite the fact that they were both actresses, Dora Jordan was no latterday Nell Gwyn. Time and again, in Tomalin's account she resolutely refuses to be so conveniently and customarily categorised. Perhaps this was a way of protecting herself, but if so, it was no a defence which was available to the Fitzclarence children. Her daughters did not need it: they married successfully into the traditional governing classes, losing any lingering taint of bastardy by taking their husbands rank and titles. But inevitably, her sons were neither so lucky nor so happy. For them, the stain of illegitimacy lingered ineradicably, and William's eventual and unexpected accession to the throne in 1830 only made matters worse. They importuned their father for peerages and for pensions, but with very limited success. The eldest son, George Fitzclarence, was eventually created Earl of Munster. It was not enough, and in 1842, he killed himself.

As these very varied biographies suggest gender and identity, legitimacy and illegitimacy, matter more in the recent history of the British monarchy than is usually recognised. But that, in turn, is merely an oblique way of saying that this book, slightly surprisingly, tells us much more about royalty than about actresses. Nor is it without a certain chilling contemporary resonance. Now, as then, the thing that matters above all else in the royal family's domestic quarrels, internal feuds and marital breakdowns is whether you are on the inside or on the outside. ‘Any fight,’ Tomalin notes, when Dora was cast out by Clarence ‘was going to be conducted on such unequal terms that she was bound to lose.’ More than a century later, the Duke of Windsor found himself in exactly the same position, and was obliged to spend the whole of his embittered post-Abdication exile coming to terms with precisely the same treatment. The Princess of Wales should take note. So should the Duchess of York. And so, perhaps, should Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Loraine Fletcher (review date 21 October 1994)

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SOURCE: Fletcher, Loraine. “The Royal Rat.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 325 (21 October 1994): 38-9.

[In the following review, Fletcher compliments Tomalin's writing in Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, though she argues that Tomalin's conclusion is inadequate.]

Claire Tomalin's biographies hum with love and anger—an anger civilised and well-researched, and all the more effective for that. Her women's lives were obscured by prudent contemporaries or written out of the record by academics, and we know by now how well she will beat the conspiracy.

She has never found a more appealing subject than Dora Jordan [in Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King]. Through the last 20 years of the 18th century, and almost to her death in 1816, Dora was the best-loved comic actress in Britain, with brief intervals of disfavour whipped up by the press. “I find laughing agrees with me better than crying,” she said, talking about a tragic part more suited to Mrs Siddons. She was radiant Comedy to the Siddons' “magnificent and appalling” Tragedy.

Her beauty was in her singing, laughing voice. There are lush portraits by Romney and Beechey, but probably the authentic likenesses are early sketches of her on stage, strong-featured and fast moving. She romped as Little Pickle in farce; was happiest as heroine in boy's clothes or entirely transvestite in Restoration revivals; became “Shakespeare's woman,” in Lamb's tribute, as Rosalind or Viola.

She acted first in Dublin in her teens, and was raped by the theatre-manager, who lent his actresses money and demanded repayment in sex, with prison as alternative. She got pregnant. The abyss was very close, as Tomalin says. But she kept faith in herself and went to Yorkshire, where she had acting relatives.

Here she was lucky to find the necessary platonic mentor, an actor-manager who named her Jordan to mark her new life after crossing the Irish Sea. Soon she was appearing at Drury Lane with Sheridan's company in the winters and touring in the summers. Each great acting style is seen as a return to nature, and Dora's literary intelligence created roles the Romantic poets, like the general public, gave their highest praise: she was “natural,” especially in Shakespeare, though her performances were well thought-out. Sometimes she was quite spontaneous. Hissed by the “precise ladies of Leeds,” who'd heard she was an unmarried mother, she bowed deeply at the end in her britches—with her back to them.

She was never calculating enough to negotiate a wealthy marriage, but lived with a handsome lawyer and had three more children until, exasperated by his reluctance to marry, she left him for Prince William, the third of George III's sons. Though clever, she was not political, and was stunned by the vicious press reaction. A jordan meant a chamberpot, providing easy copy, and a savage, surreal cartoon by Gillray shows William as penis disappearing into a cracked vessel.

When they met he was a yob, but with Dora he changed. Perhaps his loneliness appealed to her maternal side. The obvious mercenary motive can be ruled out, as she was recklessly generous and it was hard to tell which kept which. Together they established the hospitable, gemütlich family life which none of his siblings achieved. They had ten children themselves during, in his own apt phrase “an uninterrupted intercourse of happiness” lasting 20 years. Both were loving and careful parents for all 14 children. Dora lived two full lives, as William's partner and in the theatre. Luckily audiences then could suspend their disbelief even in a pregnant Rosalind.

So nothing explains William's defection, except that he was nearly 50 and began to think he might be king. Once he left her the palace parasites did all the rest. Tomalin makes no attempt to demonise him. The second real monster of the book is his brother the Prince Regent, later George IV. William was simply weak, and inarticulate about her when Dora died in Paris, almost alone and unable to speak the language.

As soon as he was king, he commissioned a life-sized statue by Chantrey, who made a madonna in classical dress with a baby at her breast and an infant at her knee, the mask of Comedy and musical pipes beside her. It was meant for Westminster Abbey but unsurprisingly rejected by the Dean.

Tomalin traces its history until it was presented in 1980 to the Queen, who was “graciously pleased to accept the bequest.” So unlike Dora it went to Buckingham Palace where it “received a Royal welcome,” whatever that may be. Tomalin gets a bit gemütlich herself in the last pages. She likes to think of Dora smiling at the irony of the statue's present setting. I'd rather think her response might be the one she gave the precise ladies of Leeds. Both these whimsies seem inadequate to end the story of so brilliant a woman, humiliated in the dismal royalty-charade.

Pat Rodgers (review date 21 October 1994)

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SOURCE: Rodgers, Pat. “The Adorable Dorothy.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4777 (21 October 1994): 4-5.

[In the following review, Rodgers evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King.]

Claire Tomalin has made her name principally as the chronicler of the insulted and the injured. Her representative women began with Mary Wollstonecraft, wilfully misunderstood before and after her premature death. Then came the secret life of Katherine Mansfield, and more recently the uncovering of the invisible woman, Ellen Ternan. But now Tomalin has shifted her gaze to Dorothy Jordan [in Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King], and the slightly banal-looking subtitle indicates the nature of the change. As an actress and royal mistress, Dorothy must have wished at times that her life was more of a secret and that she could have found the trick of invisibility. It is not blowing any gaff to say that she proves on this showing to have ended up just as badly done by as her sisters on the Tomalin list. One can hardly disagree with this view of her career.

Tomalin is aware of the irony of telling the tragic story of a comic actress. Dorothy Jordan was almost as revered in her own field as Sarah Siddons was in hers: John Hoppner depicted her at the Academy in 1786 as the muse of comedy, just two years after Joshua Reynolds had shown Siddons there in the role of tragedy. A little later, Coleridge named Dorothy as the best verse-speaker he had ever heard; Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt led the chorus of Romantic praise. At the end of her career, Hazlitt wrote, “Her face, her tears, her manners were irresistible. Her smile had the effect of sunshine, and her laugh did one good to hear it.” Nobody doubted that she was a performer of outstanding gifts, but—unlike the case of Edmund Kean—her public distinction could not be adduced as a defence of her private irregularities. This was first because she was a woman, but second because her notoriety lay in the sexual sphere and involved a royal personage.

Worse still, her admirer was locked into a framework of family scandals, involving at least three of his brothers. The future king was, of course, no Prince Arthur coming into his predestined inheritance. When Dorothy met the Duke of Clarence in 1790, having delighted him with her performance at Drury Lane as the puckish boy Little Pickle, he was some way down the line of succession, and expecting to fall further. He had not done well, or not been allowed to do well, in the navy. Dorothy was coming up to thirty, and at the top of the tree. For the next forty years, the Duke was hanging about on the fringes of power, with no reversionary interest for the ambitious to court—he did not become heir apparent until the Duke of York died in 1827. He may have begun the affair expecting a short fling before the right scion of the European ruling houses should sacrifice herself to him—a lesser Hohenzollern, perhaps, plucked from Pumpernickel in the way that the Duke's own mother had been extradited from Mecklenberg.

In the end, William turned out to be less of a failure as a king than as anything else. “He inherited a monarchy in tatters,” wrote Philip Ziegler in 1971; “he bequeathed to his heir the securest throne in Europe.” Perhaps; although the low esteem of the ruling dynasty owed much to George III's dotage, and then to the behaviour of the ageing roué George IV. The latter's treatment of his wife, when Prince of Wales, had done much harm, and the indiscretions of the other royal dukes had made things worse. We need not murmur “absit omen,” since the follies had gone much further than anything we have witnessed in our own times. The Prince had junked his old political allies and had adopted a life of gross self-indulgence now permitted only to people in show-business. The dukes had fought duels and become involved with women who make Becky Sharp's career the story of a pure woman. William was not more virtuous than the rest of his clan, but he had some of his father's liking for a quiet life, as well as a natural deference towards his elders. He was not an inspiring lover, often neglectful and easily distracted; there were times when Dorothy must have wanted to consign this Clarence to a butt of malmsey. But until his heartless abandonment of her in 1811, he did his best, according to his limited lights. Tomalin is fair to him and tends to call him nothing worse than “unimaginative,” when harsher terms may occur to some readers.

As one would expect, Tomalin's biography is strong on theatrical matters: her researches into Ellen Ternan's background have given her a keen sense of the realities of life as a strolling player, in the Vincent Crummles world evoked by the memoirs of Tate Wilkinson, who was Dorothy's early mentor. Oddly, she performed at Beverley, just a year or two after Mary Wollstonecraft had spent some years in the town. Equally, the book brings out well the visibility which Dorothy attained as a result of pictorial representations, as well as cruel misrepresentations by Gillray. More than eighty depictions are known to exist, and some of the best by Hoppner, Beechey and Romney (the most soulful and affecting) are reproduced here. Dorothy suffered from the fact that she was so easily recognizable, but it cannot have hindered her stage career, and we have the boon of wonderful pictures as the premium that it meted out to posterity.

What, though, of the title which Tomalin has chosen? It points to the theatre, but a little beyond; the author cannot have been unaware of the Shavian overtones. Bernard Shaw wrote in his preface that he chose Mrs Warren to illustrate the point that prostitution was caused “simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to prostitution to keep body and soul together.” He added that “No normal woman would be a professional prostitute if she could better herself by being respectable.” The play itself, naturally, is a bit more complicated: Mrs Warren is pretty normal, and we are meant to believe her when she tells her daughter Vivie, “I wanted to be a good woman.” Dorothy was abnormal in her ambitions and her talents. She took up a profession she knew to be anything but respectable, with few other worthwhile options, and she struggled her way to the top. If she had contented herself with that, she might have done as much to elevate the standing of actresses as Siddons, who became as dignified as Hannah More, despite a marriage that was widely known to be on the rocks.

The handicap of being on the stage really hit Dorothy when she had become entangled with the raffish world of the court. When she was barnstorming round the country, from Margate to Edinburgh, she could probably have got away with a few liaisons; she had, after all, had three children, by the Irish theatrical manager Richard Daly and the nondescript Richard Ford, before she took up with the Duke. She attempted to use publicity in the press to advance her cause, and in the end this backfired. She finished up decamping to France, like Emma Hamilton and Beau Brummell. The debts were not of her making, for she had at least not been underpaid. Her FitzClarence sons inherited from the Duke and Prinny himself the art of squeezing money from their relatives and friends; her son-in-law fiddled her out of more. If she was overworked, that was partly because she had prospered so well in her career. In so far as we are talking about the theatrical profession, she was not undervalued. What brought her down was the old sexual prejudice, the eternal double standard, the ancient injustices attached to a different calling—that of a mistress.

There are two small points related to this. First, Tomalin refers to the principal figure throughout as “Dora,” on the grounds that it was her own preferred form. This intimacy is jarring after we have been laboriously learning to call Fanny Burney “Frances,” on the alleged grounds that family pet-names demean adult women. (Actually the Burney family nickname was “Fannakins” and similar forms, while “Fanny” was an ordinary given name for many women.) The question remains as to whether we risk getting too close to the subject: her letters are direct and emotional, but they don't invite outsiders into their confidence—they solicit the concern of the recipient, rather than the general pity sought by confessional diarists and poets. Second, Dorothy's own stage profile can result in a kind of diminution. Her main speciality lay in breeches roles, and not just her acclaimed Rosalind or Viola. She often portrayed swaggering rakes like Sir Harry Wildair, that is parts originally written for men, even if they had been taken over by actresses like Peg Woffington. She regularly appeared as boys or adolescent males, and, as mentioned, the Duke fell in love with her after seeing her in the part of Little Pickle. It is tempting to see in this some kinky tendency on his side, as with Howard Hughes, but the dynamics of the breeches role are complex and not yet properly understood. Male members of the audience certainly liked to ogle the legs of an actress en travestie, but it is not always clear whether the experience was liberating or belittling for women, either as performers or as audience. All that can be said is that Dorothy's great popularity in the breeches repertoire gave her professional career a particular twist which may ultimately have affected her renown.

All in all, Dorothy Jordan was an admirable woman: serious about her craft, loyal in personal relationships, strong in adversity and unwearied in her devotion to her family. Even in 1994, it is possible to say that her greatest achievement lay in her extraordinary dedication as a mother. Denied the title and rights of a wife, she brought up ten children of the Duke, alternating boys and girls in defiance of all statistical probability. (This was in addition to the three earlier children born to Daly and Ford.) All ten reached adulthood; not all led happy lives, and her daughter by Daly and her eldest FitzClarence son both committed suicide. But many of them did manage to fulfil themselves, and some of the daughters made glittering marriages. Dorothy's ambiguous social position meant that they could not take after her, to form a dynasty like that of the Kembles, and the boys were kept out of power as their father the Duke had been for so many years. If they had any degree of security, they owed it to Dorothy.

It is, too, an admirable biography. Claire Tomalin has the art of concealing her narrative art. Apart from the fact that she appears to share Dorothy's illusion that she could find Garrick's birthplace in Lichfield, it is hard to find a fault in her performance. It is one her subject would have esteemed, for its technique, brio and human warmth.

Helen Osborne (review date 29 October 1994)

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SOURCE: Osborne, Helen. “Between the Acts.” Spectator 273, no. 8677 (29 October 1994): 31-2.

[In the following review, Osborne asserts that Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King is a “fitting memorial” for Dora Jordan.]

With the severeness of a somewhat prim school-marm, Claire Tomalin warns us in the introduction to this altogether enthralling biography that there is a special tone which creeps into eulogies of actresses, presenting them as lovable wayward creatures and striking them stone dead in the process. It is an encouragement that Mrs Jordan's Profession will be no stage-struck hagiography of the best beloved and most admired comic actress of her time (1761-1816), indeed, perhaps, of any time.

Yet only a few pages on, Mrs Tomalin memorably nails Dora's elusive magic when, as a 14-year-old in Dublin, she appears in a transvestite production of Sheridan's The Duenna:

A perfect girl-boy in her young man's breeches that showed her slim waist and pretty legs. She was not shy and she was not bawdy; she was easy and natural. Her face was finely expressive, her singing voice untrained and all the more captivating for it—her laugh bubbled up ‘from the heart,’ they said; and when she laughed the audience laughed back, helpless and delighted, like a whole house full of lovers, and her charm infused the theatre from pit to upper gallery.

For another 40 extraordinary years, she sustained this natural charm, fought a hard bargain, earned a phenomenal wage and, although she never married, had 13 healthy, handsome children by three different fathers, including the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), with whom she lived for 20 years in rare domestic bliss and intimacy.

All this is the more remarkable when you consider the distraught lives of so many of her contemporaries, both in and out of her fickle trade, who faced the daily reality of death in childbirth and infant mortality; when Irish women, in particular, were starving to death on the streets of London and if the pox didn't get you, the gin would. So it was something of a jolt to hear some feminist go on on Woman's Hour producing Dora Jordan as an archetypal victim of male perfidy. What our sisters lack in historical perspective, they certainly make up for in hysterical twaddle.

This wrath would seem to stem from the admittedly brutal behaviour of the Duke of Clarence who abruptly dumped her when she was 50 and, reportedly, ‘stout, matronly and short of breath,’ to search for a possible consort and legitimate heir. When he first courted her at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, he felt neglected by his parents, without a role or focus to his life. Although the infinitely shrewd Horace Walpole pronounced him lively, cheerful, manly, well-bred and sensible, his eldest brother, the Prince of Wales would taunt him with, ‘Who would marry you?’ Dora took him on and he wrote to his brother, ‘Mrs Jordan through a course of 11 months’ endless difficulty has behaved like an angel.’

She continued to do so. For most of their life together, as an ‘almost indecently fertile couple,’ she was the main breadwinner, unable or, more truthfully, unwilling to give up her career, endeavouring to keep his wild financial instincts in check as he chafed to have a go at Napoleon in the teeth of opposition from the sea lords. He was an exemplary father: ‘His care of these children and marked affection for them, is certainly very amiable.’ Mrs Tomalin quotes from a stack of previously unremarked private letters underlining their devotion, their love and care for their children and life at Bushy—‘dear Bushy’—their grand house near Hampton Court, cluttered with the chaos of indulged offspring. Dora was rightly stunned by his desertion and, by all accounts, ‘saturated in sorrow.’ She wrote to him: ‘You see I already consider you as an old friend, and tell you everything I think.’ In public and in print she never betrayed him. Most cruelly, biographers and historians were later to erase her existence from his life.

But to condemn the Duke outright is to lose perspective on the ambivalent morality of the day. As an actress, an illegitimate daughter, an unmarried mother three times around and a Royal mistress, Mrs Jordan knew she inhabited a treacherous no-man's-land; she was a much loved public figure, but she could never be entirely respectable. For all their popularity, actresses who showed their trews to the prostitutes in the pit might expect plaudits but few social favours. Dora Jordan, eight month's gone, would don the breeches, pocket the salary, ignore the sniggers and hop in her coach to Bushy.

She had fled Dublin at 20 when pregnant with her first child and was protected by the legendary theatrical manager, Tate Wilkinson, who ran the Yorkshire circuit in its heyday. He defended her against all comers and gave her the kick-start she needed. Delivered of her daughter (‘She despatched her business,’ as Wilkinson tactfully put it), she overcame the disapproval of the Yorkshire matrons with that tenacious charm which was to serve her all her life and in every adversity. She was a gambler, too. After three years with Wilkinson and with ‘a doubtful heart,’ she moved to Drury Lane, Boswell's ‘gay, gilded theatre.’ For her début she chose her ‘most natural part,’ The Country Girl, and planned it, says Tomalin, with ‘all the care, foresight and strategy of a general mapping out a campaign that will carry him from a skirmish in the provinces to a triumphant taking of the capital city.’ There was no safety net in London. Dora Jordan didn't need one.

Little she is and yet not insignificant in her figure, which, though short has a certain roundness and embonpoint which is very graceful. Her voice is harmony itself—and it has certain little breaks and undescribable tones which in simple archness have a wonderful effect.

Unlike today's mausoleum on the South Bank, Drury Lane was a truly Royal and National theatre, where the King and Queen and their children (the Drones of the Nation according to Cobbett) mingled with the masses. It was unquestionably a golden age in the English theatre and now Dora was at the very heart of it. She was the actress no one wanted to miss. Jordan mania gripped the town. Romney, who charged 80 guineas a portrait, painted her for nothing. Her first benefit brought in £200. The hard-nosed members of Brooks's (Sheridan, Fox, the Prince of Wales) gave her a purse of £300. Sheridan, who was running the theatre at the time, was as ‘afraid as a Mouse of a Cat’ when negotiating her contract. She ignored the satirists, replied astringently to press innuendo and wrote her own songs including, of all things, The Blue Bell of Scotland.

The Duke of Clarence was another gamble in her life, although after 20 harmonious years she might justifiably have imagined the odds getting shorter. After she produced their last child at the age of 45, the Duke insisted on no more London appearances. But she continued to delight the provinces and would write to him, not altogether convincingly, ‘I am thoroughly tired of my profession’ … ‘Oh my God, how I do long to return home,’ and from Bath, in the year of their separation, ‘I am a better actress at this moment than I ever was.’ Perhaps, he simply got tired of sitting at home, waiting for her to return.

After the dumping, she worked for another four years, to the same acclaim, although her energy was running low. A fellow actor watched her in the green room at this time. She was listless and languid, and then ‘She went on stage. She cheered up, hummed an air, stepped light and quick, and every symptom of depression vanished!’ Lord Melbourne remembered, ‘Her singing used to produce an electrical effect’; Hazlitt recalled a voice ‘like the luscious juice of the ripe grape.’ Gosh, as John Betjeman would have said, she must have been something.

Her final, desperate flight to France was due directly to her venal son-in-law running up astronomical debts in her name and, indirectly, to her own impulsive generosity to her family. She died two days before an equally debt-ridden Sheridan. The Duke, who gathered together all her portraits, commissioned a vastly expensive sculpture of her to be placed in Westminster Abbey, where it was refused entry by ecclesiastical authorities. Claire Tomalin's biography is a far more fitting memorial than that somewhat syrupy statue (now, ironically, installed in Buckingham Palace).

Thank the heavens Dora's story didn't fall into the hands of the Goofy Sisters, to be sprayed by feminist graffiti. She is her own proud monument. ‘I find laughing agrees with me more than crying.’ And so say all of us. A wonderful book about a remarkable actress and, as the Duke reflected after her death, ‘one of the best of women.’

Colette Brooks (review date 26 June 1995)

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SOURCE: Brooks, Colette. “Behind the Scenes.” New Republic 212, no. 26 (26 June 1995): 38-40.

[In the following review of Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, Brooks finds shortcomings in Tomalin's conception of fate and her portrayal of Dora Jordan as a victim.]

At midpoint in her account of an ill-starred eighteenth-century love affair, after the general outline of a ruinous end has been rendered and we await presentation of the particulars, Claire Tomalin offers a summary judgment of her subject's fate: “We can see, with hindsight, that it would have been better if she had never met him.” The remark has a curiously modern ring; it can serve as the epitaph for many a contemporary misalliance. Though Tomalin's lovers constitute a rather narrowly drawn demographic group—she was the most celebrated English actress of her day, he was a ne'er-do-well who became, quite unexpectedly, King—most of us can recognize the rueful sentiment.

But the familiar pronouncement also resonates on another level. It just happened, it didn't work out, it would have been better if she had never met him: these common expressions are contemporary formulations of Fate, our version of the ancient wheel of fortune. In this view, the universe is reduced to an intimate realm in which we watch, helplessly, as events play out around us. The very idea of human agency is suspect: chance rules and luck, as the song goes, is sometimes a lady, sometimes not. Cross your fingers, spin the wheel, what happens, happens.

Such an attitude toward experience tends to scant issues of class, race, gender and free will, but it possesses its own considerable complexities. An uncertain world is rife with peril; one needs all the guidance one can get. Some of us read runes, others books. Tomalin's book [Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King] is a cautionary tale, a primer on the distribution of risk and reward in a society that in many ways resembles our own. It is also, as in any love story, a study of men and women assiduously making all sorts of missteps.

Tomalin has written several noted biographies, focusing on stories of formidable women who would otherwise remain unheralded or invisible (such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens's mistress of thirteen years who was carefully hidden away). The lineaments of her tale here are simple enough. Dora Jordan was born in London in 1761, the daughter of an obscure worker and struggling actress who never married but produced nine children together. When Jordan's father abandoned the family, moving on to another woman with whom he started a second family, 14-year-old Dora was forced to help support her siblings. (“Her childhood,” as Tomalin puts it, “was at an end.”)

Like many other young women in the eighteenth century who had few apparent skills or prospects, Jordan took to the stage. Unlike the others, she transfixed audiences from the start. She was wildly popular in her early appearances in the provinces, where she specialized in Shakespeare's comic roles and farces. A few years later she made her London debut at Drury Lane, the most prestigious theater in England, and in short order became a star. “She came to town with no report in her favour,” one contemporary wrote, but “auditors were boundless in their plaudits, and so warm in their praises when they left the theater that friends at home would not give credit to the extent of their eulogiums.” William Hazlitt offered a simpler explanation of her power: “there was no one else like her.” Coleridge and George III, among legions of others, became professed admirers. Jordan found herself, in her 20s, one of the most renowned women in the realm. And she made twice as much money annually as Boswell.

Her story unfolds like a fairy tale, but darkened by the ever-present possibility of a fall from grace or favor. For one thing, she was a woman, and for members of that sex fortune had always proven particularly fickle. (Virginia Woolf, surveying English life up to the modern era, was repeatedly struck by “the safety and security of the one sex and the poverty and insecurity of the other.”) Though Tomalin makes no special point of it, she surely takes her title from George Bernard Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession, in which Shaw surveys the state of Victorian England and makes his celebrated case for the economic rationale of prostitution.

In a society that shamefully undereducates, undervalues and overworks women, his title character declares, “the only way for a woman to provide for herself decently is for her to be good to some man that can afford to be good to her.” If she is fortunate, the man will marry her, but such legal commitments must be considered a luxury (as is talk of love). The woman who wishes to escape destitution will make her peace with necessity and do what she must. Shaw makes a nominal distinction between working professionals and ordinary women, as it were, but for all intents and purposes his harsh metaphor holds for any woman who lacks the means to sustain life or spirit. And, just in case one is tempted to muddy the argument with pietistic indictments of such fallen souls, he makes his own position clear in the preface that he appended to the play: “Society, and not any individual, is the villain of the piece.”

These economic hazards were mirrored by the physical uncertainties that beset women of that earlier era. Lacking reliable methods of contraception, sexually active women of childbearing age could expect to find themselves in a state of almost constant pregnancy. (The numbers are daunting: women routinely bearing ten, eleven, twelve children and suffering multiple miscarriages.) Childbirth itself proved especially perilous; was not uncommon for women to write letters of farewell to loved ones before going into “confinement.” Tomalin's biography of Mary Wollstonecraft poignantly underscores this hazard: just as the account is gathering momentum, Mary in full possession of her powers expects to write a second major book, she dies of infection at the age of 38 after delivering her second baby. (The child survived, went on to write Frankenstein and to marry Shelley.)

The picture that Tomalin sketches in these books is stark. Women with limited options struggle mightily to maintain themselves and their children, often without perceptible assistance from the errant partners they love and hope in vain to keep. But Dora Jordan seemed to overcome these hurdles handily. As a successful actress, she was of amalgam of contradictions: strikingly independent yet the personification of traditional erotic allure (and shame). Along with Mrs. Warren and her ilk, the actress in the eighteenth century was one of the few sexualized women permitted to appear as such in public. The very act of displaying oneself on a stage was itself provocative. (We must allow, of course, for the power of suggestion: women of that time were so encumbered by clothing that one glimpsed the female form only when the actress played a male part. In breeches, as a contemporary put it, Jordan “sported the best leg ever seen on the stage.”) Randy aristocrats often ardently wooed actresses offstage; they, in turn, sometimes seized the chance to abandon the difficult life and marry. Many others became the mistresses of well-heeled men.

Such power to arouse passions provoked equally intense public censure, as has long been the case. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama resounds with lavishly drawn femmes fatales who bedazzle and destroy and hapless male whom they encounter. (Movies such as Fatal Attraction present updated incarnations of this enduring mythic figure.) In reality, Jordan was the least licentious of ladies. She cherished her professional life but aspired to a secure domesticity. She had had one child at the age of 20, the result either of rape or of a girlish infatuation that soon faded; the father drifted away and she assumed sole responsibility for the baby. (They had never married: “Mrs. Jordan” was a stage name given her for the sake of propriety.)

In London, she fell in love and lived for five years with a man who fathered two more children. He, too, shrunk from marrying her, though she exerted as much pressure as was seemly. There is some evidence that Dora was surprised at his hesitation; perhaps she had never mastered the “strict sexual bargaining” skills that Tomalin notes other girls were taught along with needlepoint. In any case, after many a broken promise Jordan's fairy-tale life had begun to lose its luster. As luck would have it, however, her prince appeared. He was William Duke of Clarence, third son of the king of England and an avid theatergoer. They fell in love. She had met the man to whom she would devote herself for the next twenty years. They would have ten children together. She would remain a celebrated performer and the financial mainstay of the de facto family.

Had the Jordan story ended here, it would have had a manifestly happy ending. But fate (or the royal family) was to decree otherwise. Marriage to such a woman was unthinkable, and Prince William would ultimately leave her—or dump her, in the crueler argot of our day—in order to make a socially acceptable liaison. Some years later, in another twist of fortune, the Duke became King William IV. Since his children by Dora were illegitimate (“with the King they die,” as one royal put it), his eldest child George, capable and winning, could hardly hope to gain the crown. He ultimately killed himself. The throne passed upon William's death to his niece Victoria and the rest, as they say, is history, and a case study in the allocation of scarce resources. Dora did not live to witness this turn of events. She died alone and in financial difficulty. Her name was nowhere to be found in William's official biography, the record altered to remove all traces of his abiding error.

“It would have been better if she had never met him.” Perhaps so, but it is difficult to imagine Jordan's life taking a different shape. The force of brute fact lends the final account an air of inevitability, as though it could not possibly have worked out any other way. And if the course of the individual life seems immutable, so does that of the age: Who can imagine the nineteenth century without Victoria at its helm? The woman who might have remained merely a princess became queen and defined her era. And so the wheel spins.

Tomalin depicts Jordan as a victim of sorts, but such a verdict does not seem altogether apt. She suffered at the end, certainly, but for most of her life she lived very well. She was born with a singular gift, and was able to devote herself for forty-some years to work that she found profoundly satisfying. Jordan herself was fully aware of her good fortune: “I begin to feel that acting keeps me alive,” she wrote in later years. (She had been pronounced a “degraded woman” by The London Times, but continued to appear triumphantly on stage.) She was a resolutely dedicated mother who strove to shelter her children from scorn; they, in turn, were devoted to her. Her loving (and monogamous) relationship with William lasted two decades. And throughout her life Jordan freely shared her good fortune with others, supporting a large extended family and endowing charities, among them a Female Friendly Society for needy women and children. No, there seems no cause for pity in this account.

But there is one figure who haunts this book, though her story takes up only a few paragraphs in its many pages. It is Jordan's eldest daughter Fanny, the “natural child” born to the poor 20-year-old girl who was illegitimate herself, the bastard born of a bastard who had the bad luck to possess no royal blood whatsoever. Jordan's five daughters by the Duke were eventually absorbed into the aristocracy, consorting with the likes of Metternich and Talleyrand at social affairs Jordan herself could not attend, but there were no such prospects for Fanny. Jordan worried about the girl her entire life. Her earliest communications to the Duke were colored by pleas that he extend his protection to the child. “Set my mind totally at ease] with respect to her, and I will be yours forever … she is the only rival you can ever have in my heart.”

If this were really a fairy tale, Fanny would have flourished, becoming a well-adjusted member of a society that wished her only well. But this was not to be. She grew up aggrieved, resentful of a world that confirmed her worst expectations at every turn. (She was certainly spirited; at one point she wrote hostile letters to the Duke on behalf of her mother, one of the few who dared to reprove him.) She made a doomed marriage to a nondescript man who squandered the little money they had and left her. Then she determined to follow her mother upon the stage, but there she failed, as she possessed neither sufficient talent nor beauty. (As Hazlitt put it, Fanny was “no more like her mother, ‘than I to Hercules.’”) Eventually, in one last spin of the wheel, she endeavored to leave England and begin a new life in America. The Duke paid her passage.

But it didn't work out. Less than a year later, at the age of 39, Fanny killed herself in New York City. She left behind a little girl whose name has been lost to history, just one more of the “infinitely obscure lives” (in Woolf's phrase) that will remain forever unrecorded. And so it is not Dora but Fanny, and all the women like her, who one thinks of upon closing this book. What a life it might have been. What a life it was.

Gerald Weales (review date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Here Comes Mrs. Jordan.” Sewanee Review 103, no. 4 (fall 1995): 111-14.

[In the following review, Weales offers a generally favorable assessment of Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, but finds fault in Tomalin's disinterest in Dora Jordan's theater career.]

“Nobility, gentry, citizens, princes—all were frequenters of the theatre and even more or less acquainted personally with the performers. Nobility intermarried with them; gentry, and citizens too, wrote for them; princes conversed and lived with them.” So Leigh Hunt wrote in his autobiography, recalling the London theatrical scene as the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth. His description might well introduce Claire Tomalin's Mrs. Jordan's Profession, in which Hunt makes a few cameo appearances commenting on the popular performer (“the first living actress in comedy”); but the biographer does not quote this passage, perhaps because Linda Kelly uses it to open The Kemble Era (1980), her study of the theater in which Mrs. Jordan flourished. In fact, Tomalin gives no indication that she knows Kelly's book.

Despite the titular word profession, the primary thrust of Tomalin's biography is indicated by the subtitle, “The Actress and the Prince.” Although she chronicles some of Mrs. Jordan's theatrical adventures, insists upon her dedication to the theater, quotes the reaction of critics and other theatergoers to her work, she admits in the foreword: “My own prejudices make me devote much less attention to her theatrical performances than previous biographers have done.” “Dora Jordan, and her tangled and tormented relations with the royal family with whom she became so closely allied, make the subject of this book,” she says in a prologue.

In the prize-winning The Invisible Woman, the biography that preceded this one, Tomalin rescued Nelly Ternan from the shadow of her eminent lover, Charles Dickens; but, if she has something similar in mind here, she has the wrong cast of characters. Jordan lived for more than twenty years with the duke of Clarence (later William IV) and bore him ten children (“an almost indecently fertile couple,” Tomalin says), before she was unceremoniously dumped, largely through the machinations of the royal family, and she is “at best half known” today; but, if anyone in that duo needs to be rescued from obscurity, it is bumbling King William, whom only devotees of the Royals remember as anything other than a regal hiccup before England cleared its throat with Queen Victoria.

Tomalin has three images of Jordan that she wants to project: the female victim in a male society, an independent and capable woman, a loving mother and “wife.” Sometimes the three figures seem to be at war among themselves. Mrs. Jordan was born Dorothy Bland to an itinerant theatrical couple; her father, whose family did not approve of the liaison, never married her mother and deserted her when Dora (the name she preferred) was still a child. “You men run and ramble at your pleasure,” says Nell in The Devil to Pay (later one of Jordan's most popular roles), and the actress, as well as the character, knew the implications of that line. When she was twenty, Dora was seduced or raped or economically coerced, which is a bit of both, by Richard Daly, the manager of the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin (when Mrs. Inchbald would not give in to his demands, Daly fired her in midseason). Pregnant, Dora escaped to England, where she joined Tate Wilkinson's theater in Yorkshire and took the name that she would keep for the rest of her life; in her condition, Mrs. seemed a useful title. Later in London, after she had joined the Drury Lane and become a great success, she set up housekeeping with Richard Ford (“the second villain in her life”), who never delivered on his promise of marriage because his father, even though he was one of the proprietors of the Drury Lane, did not want his son to marry an actress. She had three children by Richard, two of whom lived; and they seem to have been a cozy couple until he was replaced by the ardent duke, who presumably continued to love her (he filled his house with portraits of her) even after he acquiesced in the separation that his family clearly wanted.

As to her independence, Mrs. Jordan is depicted as a woman who made her own living, learned how to strike hard bargains in the shifty theater business, looked after the economic well-being of her pre—William children and even loaned or gave money to her perennially debt-ridden royal lover. Despite this view of Jordan, she is shown too as the victim of those she tried to help, too loving and trusting with friends and relatives, and ruined finally by a son-in-law who borrowed in her name and made it necessary for her to leave England to escape the debtor laws. She died an unhappy exile in France, tied to her fondly remembered past only by the letters that occasionally reached her from her children. Her idyllic years with the duke and her children—regularly interrupted by the demands of the stage, colored by the nastiness of the press—are shown through her letters to the duke and to her sons. Too often given in snippets or in paraphrase, they seem less the “intimate voice” that Tomalin found so surprising when she first came across it than generalized accounts of domesticity suitable to even so unlikely a Darby and Joan.

It is fascinating to follow this formidable but oddly innocent woman through the nasty world of fashionable London, but none of these Mrs. Jordans is as interesting as Mrs. Jordan of Drury Lane, about whom—for my money—we do not get enough. She occasionally played tragic heroines or aristocratic ladies in comedy, but she made her reputation in more rambunctious roles. She made her London debut in The Country Girl, David Garrick's emasculation of Wycherley's The Country Wife. As Peggy she not only played the kind of hoydenish character that her audiences loved, but she got to dress up as a boy and show off her celebrated legs. She was much admired in “breeches” roles. In both As You Like It and Colley Cibber's She Wou'd and She Wou'd Not—with Girl, her most popular plays—she wore men's clothes most of the time. A very pregnant woman disguised as a boy may seem an incongruous image to today's playgoer, but eighteenth-century audiences were unfazed by performers obviously pregnant.

Mrs. Jordan was regularly praised for her voice, her laugh, her manner, and, most of all, for her naturalness on the stage. Comparing Fanny Alsop's performance as Rosalind with that of her mother, Hazlitt wrote: “Mrs. Jordan was the same in all her characters, and inimitable in all of them, because there was no one else like her.” He means it as a compliment, but performers who are all personality and no art are even more tedious than those who are all technique and no inspiration. Mrs. Jordan's was a calculated naturalness. William Macready, who performed with her as a young man, said that the effects that “appear spontaneous and accidental” were “elaborated with the greatest care.” Linda Kelly quotes Leigh Hunt's description of a scene in Sheridan's A Trip to Scarborough in which Jordan, as a pinafore-clad Miss Hoyden, “shed blubbering tears for some disappointment and ate all the while a great thick slice of bread and butter, weeping and moaning and munching.” However natural-looking this scene may have seemed, the making of it sounds to me like art.

Claire Tomalin's declared lack of interest in the theater aside (she is married to a well-known playwright), Mrs. Jordan's Profession is a compelling study of an apparently open-hearted woman trying and for many years succeeding in living well in a society in which corruption joined hands with hypocrisy to dig pitfalls for anyone who was too trusting.

Peter Holland (review date 19 October 1995)

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SOURCE: Holland, Peter. “Not Having It All.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 16 (19 October 1995): 62-4.

[In the following review, Holland argues that Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King is a “superb” biography, praising Tomalin as an accomplished and “modest writer.”]

While staying in Leeds in July 1782, Tate Wilkinson, the successful manager of a theater company touring the north of England, received a message asking him to visit Grace Phillips, an actress who, as Mrs. Francis, had once played Desdemona to his Othello. He found Grace and her three children in dire straits: newly arrived from Ireland and penniless, the family desperately needed work. But Grace Phillips was not asking Wilkinson for a place in his troupe for herself. Instead she proposed that he should employ her daughter Dorothy or, as she preferred to be known, Dora, aged twenty and now five months pregnant, the result of an affair with Richard Daly, a vicious Dublin theater manager who had forcibly claimed the rights of the casting couch.

Long before Noel Coward, Wilkinson knew only too well the problems of dealing with Mrs. Worthingtons who wanted to put their daughters on the stage. As he wrote late, “the mamma, like other mammas, and in particular actresses mammas, talked so fulsomely of her daughter's merits, that I was almost disgusted, and very near giving a flat denial to any negotiation.” Eventually persuaded by hearing Dora recite a few lines and by her boundless self-confidence, Wilkinson agreed to let her play Calista, the title role in Nicholas Rowe's tragedy The Fair Penitent.

Wilkinson advertised Dora as Miss Bland, but Grace protested: Dora's father, Francis Bland, had abandoned the family seven years earlier. Dora was billed instead as Miss Francis. Like all such theater stories, this one would have no point unless Miss Francis was a triumph as Calista. By the time the company moved on to York, Wilkinson's new star was too visibly pregnant, and the father too obviously invisible to be acting as “Miss.” Wilkinson came up with a new idea jokingly he likened Dora's escape from Ireland to the Israelites fording the River Jordan from slavery to freedom and Miss Francis became Dora Jordan, the subject of Claire Tomalin's superb biography [Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King].

If Wilkinson's suggestion solved the problem of her stage name for the rest of her career, Dora Jordan's life can seem like an endless search for an off-stage name. Unable to use her father's surname, Jordan never married and thus never acquired the legal right to use a husband's surname either. Many actors like Dora Jordan have undergone the experience of abandoning the name they might have thought of as their own, taking on a new public name for their work, these days answering the demands of Equity or a Hollywood studio. Actors are, in any case, used to being renamed, taking on a new name with each new role, and some of those roles, almost as the price of popular success, add their own resonances to the performers names, as, for instance, when Sylvester Stallone becomes unnervingly identified as Rambo and Rocky off-screen as much as on. The actor is public property, with an identity molded as much by the audience as by the star.

But Jordan's life, like her name, does not conform to the stereotypes. Tomalin gives a fine account of her career. Immediately successful with Wilkinson's company, she quickly moved to London and within a short time had established her position as the finest comic actress of her age. In her first year in London she began a relationship with Richard Ford, a young lawyer and the son of the co-owner, with Sheridan, of the Drury Lane Theater. She had three children by Ford, but though she occasionally signed her letters “Dora Ford.” He refused to marry her.

In 1791, aged thirty, Dora Jordan fell in love with the Duke of Clarence, the third son of King George III. For the next twenty years they lived together extraordinarily happily and Jordan had ten more children, neatly alternating boys and girls in defiance of any statistical expectation. But again she could not take on a new name since the Royal Marriages Act prevented their marrying and Dora Jordan could never become the Duchess of Clarence. Though their children could not be officially acknowledged by the court, their first names all defined their family, for they were all named after the Duke's brothers and sisters. But for years they, too lacked a surname. Only after 1804 were they given their own last name, becoming known as Fitz-Clarence, another name their mother could not take on.

In 1811, without any forewarning, the Duke suddenly and appallingly demanded a separation, partly as a result of pressure from the palace to marry and produce legitimate heirs. Four years later, exhausted and alone, just as she was hoping finally to retire from the stage, Jordan was forced to flee to France to avoid legal action for a mountain of debts fraudulently acquired in her name by a son-in-law. As poor and desperate as when she had arrived in Leeds from Ireland more than thirty years earlier, Dora again needed a new name and now became Mrs. James her last and saddest identity. But famous actors cannot escape their fans and, ill and heartbroken, hoping for some help from England to solve the financial catastrophe, Mrs. James had to endure visits from English residents and tourists who wanted their chance to talk with Dora Jordan. She died in July 1816 in Saint-Cloud, without a single one of her surviving children with her, her grave unmarked until 1818, when an English couple paid for a tombstone “sacred to the memory of Dorothy Jordan.”

Jordan's first biographer, her friend James Boaden, found her life “valuable to the moralist.” Though he liked his subject and adored her performances, Boaden began his account with a sharp recognition of the moral awkwardness of her experiences:

Irregularity of any kind is commonly progressive, and seldom prosperous. … There was an ambiguity in her situation, always productive of annoyance; and the cultivation and the practice of many virtues, were not always thought to balance the admitted dispensation with some of the forms of life.1

The annoyance seems as much Boaden's as his recording the general public's sense of moral offense, even though the prolonged happiness of the years with the Duke of Clarence is a fairy tale that duly becomes a horror story.

Jordan's public biography is well-known to theater historians. The title of Claire Tomalin's biography suggests that she, too, will be mainly concerned with Jordan's professional life. But instead, tenderly and with immense sympathy, she brilliantly recounts her private life. Recapturing the work of an actor is notoriously difficult. In spite of the paintings and engravings, in spite of all the descriptions by reviewers and other theatergoers, the performances can resolutely refuse to come alive. But if, even for the most assiduous of biographers, the actor can stay lost, a biographer of Jordan has an unusual advantage: more than any other actor before the twentieth century, Jordan survives in her own words, for nearly nine hundred of her letters to the Duke and to her children survive. In 1951 a selection was unsympathetically edited by Arthur Aspinall, the editor of the royal correspondence of the period. Aspinall cut and censored. Tomalin is the first to go back to the archives and rediscover the deeply protective mother and lover. Through the letters, she has built a moving portrait, scrupulous to the evidence, charitable—even to the Duke of Clarence.

Tomalin is a modest writer, rarely drawing attention to her own discoveries, and so when she does speak for herself the effect is all the stronger. At one moment, she prints a letter from one of Jordan's sons, away at the Royal Military College, to his elder brother, describing his overwhelmed response to the rumors of his parents separation. Tomalin recalls her own experience of finding it.

It was preserved by George … and has remained in a bundle of disregarded papers for nearly two hundred years. When I opened the double sheet with its crumbled edges and began to read, the clear, true voice of Henry's outraged grief brought him to life before me with all the force he put into the writing, and I found I had tears in my eyes as I read.

So too did I, both in reading the letter and in reading Tomalin's response. Writing with an assured feeling for Jordan and her family, Tomalin describes without prying, reports without judging.

When Wilkinson agreed that “Miss Francis” could make her debut as Calista in Rowe's The Fair Penitent, the choice of role was designed to make a pointed comment on the actress's circumstances. But the problems of the character and of the performer do not overlap in quite the predictable ways. The play, first performed in 1703, was one of the stock tragedies of any eighteenth-century theater company, and gave the language the idea of “that haughty, gallant, gay Lothario.” Though Richardson drew on Lothario and Calista for his Lovelace and Clarissa, and though Lothario is as much the callous seducer as Richard Daly, who had made Jordan pregnant. Tomalin misdescribes the play as “a tragedy centred on a rape.” Calista loves Lothario and has spent a night of passion with him only too willingly. Calista may appear to be the fair penitent of the title but, as Dr. Johnson complained, Calista “shows no evident signs of repentance, but may be reasonably suspected of feeling pain from detection rather than from guilt.”2

From her early days with Wilkinson, Jordan frequently had to face the moral outrage of some of her public who found her like Calista, shameless. Her response was consistent: she demanded, forthrightly and reasonably, that she be judged solely for her performances, that the limits of the audience's concerns be within her control. One implication of Tomalin's title is that Jordan was certainly a consummate professional. When, at the beginning of her relationship with the Duke, the press attacked her for failing, for frivolous reasons, to perform, Jordan fought back in a public letter, arguing,

I would not obtrude upon the public an allusion to anything that does not relate to my profession; in which alone I may, without presumption, say, I am accountable to them; … if they could drive me from that profession, they would take from me the only income I have, or mean to possess.

The Times sneered at her claim of financial dependence on the theater: “If this be the case, we cannot help saying there are certainly more fools than one in the world.” But the Times was wrong: Jordan depended on her work for her income. Far from relying on the Duke, whose financial acumen was exactly the inverse of her own, Jordan supported their growing family, often lending the Duke large sums to pay his debts, cautiously paying into annuities and life-insurance schemes for herself and all her children. She was tough in her negotiations with theater managers about her fees, simply because she had to be, but it was a toughness that made even Wilkinson complain in his memoirs.

But now, dear Mrs. Jordan, you do like the cash, and I believe and hope you take care of it; that you love to receive it I know, and so does every other manager; you have made us all know that.3

For four years before she began performing at the age of seventeen, she was usually the family's only source of income, supporting her mother and her siblings and later her children by Daly and Ford. Her letters to the Duke report endlessly on her earnings: “Received last night £32. 10s.,” “My Benefit last night £90.” “I have just received my salary £20 which makes in all £75.” The very frequency of these references can sound, to our ears, a little disconcerting: talking of one's income, even to one's partner, is perhaps our last taboo. But Jordan was fiercely independent, and she certainly needed the money. Acting in Dublin in 1809, she wrote to the Duke.

The second day I arrived here, before I had recovered [from] my voyage and fatigue, I had bills to the amount of £394 presented to me for payment, debts contracted by my two brothers. I knew the law could not force me to pay them, but still it placed me in a very awkward situation.4

As fast as she earned money, others spent it for her. It is a hideous irony that the day before she received the letter from the Duke inviting her to the meeting at which he would announce his intention to separate, she wrote to him from Cheltenham, where she was performing.

Money, money, cruel money, since at my first setting out in the world at the age of 13, at a moderate calculation, I have spun fairly and honestly out of my own brains above £100,000, and still, this cruel pelf robs me of even comfort and happiness, as I verily believe we have nothing to do with our own fate.5

At a climactic moment in The Fair Penitent, Calista complains of female dependency:

How hard is the condition of our sex,
Through ev'ry state of life the slaves of man!
In all the dear, delightful days of youth
A rigid father dictates to our wills,
And deals out pleasure with a scanty hand.

But Jordan's father had left her; her touching poem on the death of her mother, one of the very few of her poems to survive, praises her mother as a “patient wife; / Whose firm fidelity no wrongs could shake, / While curb'd resentment was forbid to speak. / Thus silent anguish mark'd her for her own,”6 using the elegy at a very public moment to condemn her father's actions.

After the father should have come the husband. As Calista puts it,

To his, the tyrant husband's reign succeeds;
Proud with opinion of superior reason.
He holds domestic business and devotion
All we are capable to know, and shuts us,
Like cloistered idiots, from the world's acquaintance
And all the joys of freedom.(7)

But Jordan was never a cloistered idiot: throughout their time together in a quasi-marriage, the Duke only once proposed that she should leave the stage, as other actresses had usually done when living with aristocratic lovers, and even that request, in 1805, lasted for only eighteen months. It was especially cruel that one of the conditions of the financial settlement of the separation drawn up by the royal advisers was that the considerable sums payable to Jordan for maintenance of her daughters for as long as they were living with her would cease if “the said Dora Jordan shall perform or act upon the Stage of any public or private Theatre.”

Jordan was devoted to her children: she would dash back from the theater to be with them, and her letters are full of the most careful reports on their health and lives, the most heartfelt wishes for their happiness when she was away from them on tour. It was her concern for them and their relationship with their father that led her to agree to their living with the Duke. With no financial constraint, she could continue her career: indeed it became all the more imperative that she carried on.

It would be easy to see Jordan as a familiar stereotype: the career woman destroyed by a male establishment, trying, impossibly, to reconcile her work and her parenthood. In an excellent article, Deborah C. Payne has argued that, contrary to the claims of much recent criticism, the first English actresses, in the period after 1660, were not simply diminished by becoming objects of the spectators' gaze and by their status as professionals. At the same time she argues, they were also “amplified,” placed in a new and commanding position of social and cultural power.8 If Restoration actresses were not the victims we have tended to see them as being, the same arguments might apply to their progeny, including Dora Jordan. Jordan's experiences as a professional actor were often especially harsh. Yet, for all that, throughout her career Jordan resolutely refused to let herself be transformed into a victim, least of all to see herself as one.

One of her most popular roles was as Nell, the good-natured wife of a brutish cobbler, in The Devil to Pay or the Wives Metamorphos'd, an operatic farce by Charles Coffey, the kind of neat and banal play in which, when she was not triumphantly playing Shakespeare's Rosalind and Viola, audiences expected her to appear and which proved to give surprising scope to her brilliance. A magician, insulted by the proud wife of Sir John Loverule, swaps her with Nell who wakes one morning to find herself a lady.

In the spate of cartoons that gleefully mocked Jordan at the start of her liaison with the Duke of Clarence, Dora was often portrayed as Nell. One cartoon by William Dent seized on the scene where an amazed Nell looks in a mirror and sees a lady's reflection, “a gay find thing I knew not.” In the play, Nell remembers that “great Ladies, they say, have flattering Glasses, that shew them far unlike themselves, whilst poor Folks Glasses represent them e'en just as they are.”9 In Dent's “The Flattering Glass, or Nell's Mistake.” Jordan is looking in a mirror, saying “if … the Glass be true, I am no less than my Lady DUTCHESS.”

But Jordan, though she may have wanted royal recognition for her children, had no false fantasy for herself: she would never be a Duchess—decorum prescribed that, though the King and the rest of the royal family occasionally came to see her perform, they could not possibly ever meet her. Instead Jordan, with characteristic self-mockery, could turn the fake title against herself. When in rehearsal someone complained, “Why, you are grand, Madam—quite the Duchess again, this morning,” Jordan responded with a story about her Irish cook, sacked for impertinence that morning, who banged a shilling of her wages on the table, announcing “with this thirteener, won't I sit in the gallery?—and won't your Royal Grace give me a curtsy?—and won't I give your Royal Highness a howl, and a hiss into the bargain?”10

What must have hurt more was when Wilkinson's joke in giving her a stage name backfired and Jordan's own name was turned against her. For “jordan” was another name for a chamber pot, and James Gillray in particular seized on the opportune inspiration it offered his cartoons. He did so most memorably and surrealistically in a cartoon called “Lubber's Hole, alias The Crack'd Jordan,” in which Dora becomes an enormous chamber pot with female legs, the crack in it a startlingly explicit image of a vulva into which the Duke is disappearing headfirst. Gillray's image ought to be nasty, cruel, an example of a vicious satiric excess, but he makes it comic, witty, and fantastical. For even at his most mocking he seems to have found Jordan irresistible: in “La Promenade en Famille,” Gillray shows a red-faced, sweating Duke pulling a pram with three sharply caricatured children, while Dora walks modestly beside them, studying a script.

Tomalin's biography includes a marvelous collection of images, of Jordan, from cartoons to domestic portraits and pictures of her in performance, above all William Beechey's glowing painting of her as Rosalind, a role she performed for twenty-seven years.11 Her early success had been built on her performances in a range of child roles in farces: as Priscilla Tomboy in The Romp, or Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child. By the end of her career she performed such roles only rarely: fourteen pregnancies and a punishing schedule cannot have helped, and the theater critic Leigh Hunt was only being honest when he suggested that “[to] be very fat and to look forty years old is certainly not the happiest combination for a girlish appearance.” Jordan's physical appearance now made her stand outside the role, presenting it rather than representing the character. Henry Crabb Robinson, a regular theatergoer, mocked “the absurdity of an old woman aping the romping wantonness of a girl,” but he could find no fault in her performance as Nell, where her “age and bulk … do not interfere with any requisite in the character.”12 Even Leigh Hunt continued to praise her as Rosalind:

So delightful, however, are the feelings and tones of nature, that there is still no actress who pleases so much in the performance of frank and lively youth, in Shakespeare's Rosalind, for instance.13

That extraordinary energy, the natural excitement that was so often praised, continued to turn the tired trouper into the character of her audiences' imaginations. She could play Rosalind when seven months pregnant, she could play her when over fifty, but the effect was still the same, as brilliant as ever.

All actors risk being typecast. In the stock repertory system of eighteenth-century theater, the risks as well as the advantages were particularly acute. The effect of typecasting is both to define and to narrow their performing selves, to create a curious identity, a complex interpenetration of the performer and the roles in the audience's minds. It can harm an actor's career, but it can also be seen as having far odder side effects. Leigh Hunt complained that her very success in “broad and romping characters” prevented her from “catch[ing] the elegant delicacy of the lady.” Bizarrely he complained that the brilliance of her performance in “breeches” roles, playing cross-dressing characters like Rosalind, damaged her own gender identity, for “if [an actress] succeeds in her study of male representation she will never entirely get rid of her manhood with its attire.”14 I have no idea how Leigh Hunt reconciled this with a performer so often pregnant. But Jordan's career depended on the continuation of the roles that had made her a star: there could be no transition for such a comic actress to playing dignified, middle-aged ladies.

Never described as being especially beautiful, Jordan succeeded through her stage presence, energizing the performances. When the paintings of her are placed together it is often hard to be sure that they are all images of the same person. Jordan becomes all her roles, as Rosalind or as Nell, as mother or as lady of the manor, as royal lover or as the Comic Muse. Her identity spreads through her different social and theatrical roles. No wonder then that, after her death, the Duke guiltily began to collect as many paintings of her as he could find.

As Tomalin unfolds the narrative with great skill, she allows us to see still other and unexpected aspects of Jordan: the occasional poet, the composer of the haunting popular song “The Blue Bell of Scotland” (her authorship now long forgotten), the admirer of radical contemporary poetry who in 1800 planned to insert a setting of Wordsworth's “Her Eyes are Wild” from the Lyrical Ballads (1798) into her performance in Sheridan's Pizarro. Tomalin also claims that Jordan co-wrote a play with a Miss Cuthbertson, Anna, first performed in 1793. The evidence for Jordan's authorship is weak but Tomalin makes a rare and uncharacteristic mistake when she claims that the play is lost. The manuscript version submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for permission to perform survives as MS LA 969 in the Larpent Collection at the Henry E. Huntington Library in Pasadena, ironically the same library that holds six hundred of Jordan's letters, the place where her identity as lover and mother, as performer and professional, is most unequivocally revealed.


  1. James Boaden, The Life of Mrs Jordan (2nd edition, 1831), Vol. 1, pp. 4-5.

  2. Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, George Birkbeck Hill, editor (Oxford University Press, 1905), Vol. 2, p. 68.

  3. Tate Wilkinson, The Wandering Patentee (1795), Vol. 2, p. 136.

  4. A. Aspinall, editor, Mrs Jordan and Her Family (Arthur Baker Ltd., 1951), p. 101.

  5. Aspinall, Mrs Jordan and Her Family, p. 205.

  6. Boaden, The Life of Mrs Jordan, Vol. 1, pp. 367-368

  7. Nicholas Rowe, The Fair Penitent, Malcolm Goldstein, editor (University of Nebraska Press, 1969), p. 34.

  8. Deborah C. Payne, “Reified Object or Emergent Professional? Retheorizing the Restoration Actress,” in J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah C. Payne, editors, Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theater (University of Georgia Press, 1995), pp. 13-38 (p. 16).

  9. Charles Coffey, The Devil to Pay, adapted by Theophilus Cibber (1748) p. 22.

  10. Boaden, The Life of Mrs Jordan, Vol. 1, pp. 343-344.

  11. “Mrs Jordan: the Duchess of Drury Lane,” an exhibition of paintings, prints, and drawings of Dora Jordan at Kenwood House in London, is on view until December 3.

  12. Eluned Brown, editor, The London Theatre 1811-1866: Selections from the Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson (Society for Theatre Research, 1966), p. 53.

  13. Leigh Hunt, Dramatic Essays, William Archer and Robert W. Lowe, editors (Walter Scott Ltd., 1894), p. 80.

  14. Leigh Hunt, Dramatic Essays, p. 83.

Simon Jarvis (review date 12 September 1997)

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SOURCE: Jarvis, Simon. “Sponge Cakes or Don Juan.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4928 (12 September 1997): 3-4.

[In the following excerpt, Jarvis lauds Jane Austen: A Life, comparing it favorably with David Nokes's simultaneously published biography on Austen.]

“To be burned.” These were the words which Cassandra Austen wrote on a bundle of her sister Jane's letters in 1843. But why did the letters have to be burned? Perhaps because Jane Austen had expressed improper resentment at having to move to Bath. Or perhaps because she had expressed improper excitement. Or perhaps these letters concealed something far worse, that is, better: facts so unexpected, so pleasurably shocking that only a new full-length biography—or two—could really do justice to them. Who knows? Because this is a life with a deliberately created series of holes in it, we are unlikely ever to find out quite why Cassandra burnt her sister's letters. David Nokes is right to place this successful act of censorship squarely at the front of his new life of Austen. His cards are on the table from the start. Readers are aware throughout that the answers to their most pressing questions are now lost. Yet both these new biographies of Austen, in different ways, work their limited material to valuable effect.

Certain biographical subjects present problems not unlike those which face the editor of a text for which there is little manuscript or bibliographical evidence. The evidence forms a small, tightly bounded, and well-policed enclosure. The biographer must, for the most part, hope either to scrutinize with new insight the very materials which have so often been reviewed, or, by a bold comparison, to demonstrate the relevance of some previously discarded source. The apparent finiteness of the task can afford the satisfaction of an attempt to solve a particularly obstinate, if not always important, puzzle. Something, at any rate, impels the heroes of scholarship to return to the place and to fail again, fail better. The analogy with editing can often go further. It is hard to throw out of one's text a reading welcomed by a long ancestral tree of editors. So it comes about that a word invented by William Warburton in the mid-eighteenth century can still be found in most currently available texts of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Biographical anecdotes and rumours of the most slender value, similarly, take on the imaginary authority conferred by long-standing repetition. Life-writers promise us their subject “according to the most authentic copies,” but in the event reproduce the textus receptus of immemorial tradition.

It is in just this way that “we know” that Jane Austen fainted when she was told that her family was moving to Bath. It is typical of the critical patience of David Nokes's new life that he takes apart the genealogy of this particular story so that we can see how biographical transmission has worked in practice. Almost seventy years after the “event,” Austen's niece Caroline wrote a letter in which she reported that her mother, Mary Austen, who was present, had said that Jane was greatly distressed at the sudden news that her family were to move to Bath. Not until 1913 did this become—on the basis of some additional hearsay evidence—a fainting fit, since when it has remained such in a succession of lives. It is also characteristic of Nokes's book that this detail matters to a broader argument. Most lives of Austen have agreed that she was upset or depressed at having to leave Hampshire. For Nokes, this has been too quickly decided, and for bad reasons; biographers have not wanted to think that Austen could be bored by the countryside and excited by somewhere more socially fluid. It is possible to disagree with Nokes about this particular question while admiring the transparency of his method, the way in which it emphasizes problems of evidence. Austen herself remarks in one letter that she is becoming “more & more reconciled to the idea of our removal,” which does suggest an initial reluctance. Claire Tomalin, although she gives herself less space than Nokes for reviews of evidence [in Jane Austen: A Life], also demonstrates her independence of mind by allowing only that Austen was “distressed,” not that she fainted away. …

In reading either of these lives, indeed, we become strongly aware of the extent to which writing a life is a matter of judging tone, particularly where the primary sources are so thin on the ground. …

For both biographers, indeed, Jane Austen appears more readily identifiable as the author of Pride and Prejudice than of the later novel [Mansfield Park]. Both relish her missiles of cant-exploding candour: “Kent is the only place for happiness. Everybody is rich there”; “The rich are always respectable, whatever be their stile of writing.” Both are less enamoured than biographers have sometimes been of Cassandra, Austen's (apparently) staider elder sister; both, conversely, devote welcome attention to her more exciting cousin Eliza, who may have talked to her, Tomalin interestingly suggests, about Laclos. In certain ways, this is a refreshing emphasis. Readings of the moral dimension of Austen's fiction have sometimes had all the appeal of a wet weekend with Mary Bennet. Nokes insists on the comic violence of the early fiction, and is drawn to those remarks in the correspondence which show us an Austen with an appetite, not for the narrow round, but for passionate excess. After seeing a performance of Don Juan, Austen remarked: “I must say that I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting character than that compound of cruelty & lust.”

Like Austen herself, these biographers keep a close eye on who has their hands on how much money at which times. Tomalin emphasizes the relative modesty of Austen's background and the importance of money-making, chiefly in the professions, for Austen's brothers. Nokes is acute in his account of the significance of publication for Austen. He persuasively suggests that, in looking for psychological reasons for her unproductive decade at the start of the nineteenth century, we may be retrospectively projecting the character of a published author on to Austen's early years. If reasons are needed, he thinks that the reverse of the explanation usually offered—and offered again by Tomalin—may do as well: happiness as well as depression can explain a falling-off in literary productivity. Perhaps Austen spent more time seeking out social opportunities. At one point in her time in Bath, she writes of a walk in the Crescent abandoned partly because the place was “not crouded enough.” …

If there is one aspect of Austen's thought which both accounts seem really to misstate, though, it is the nature of this preoccupation with the moral character of sociation. It is worth insisting on Austen's impatience with cant of all kinds, certainly, but not in such a way that the ethical turn in her fiction comes to look unconvincingly adventitious. Simply to invert a perceived hierarchy in existing treatments of Austen's life and fiction, a hierarchy in which morality is seen as subjugating wit, may too readily confirm the terms of the opposition. Isn't it one of the most unusual and powerful aspects of Austen's work, and above all of Mansfield Park, that its moral content is presented, exceptionally, without the least sacrifice of the intellect, without the least trace of literal-mindedness? The remark so often quoted in connection with that novel—“I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals”—comes from Austen's great letter written to her niece Fanny concerning the latter's anxiety about her possible marriage with a young man of a “very serious disposition.” Gathering praise of the man's virtues culminates in this declaration: “Oh! my dear Fanny, the more I write about him, the warmer my feelings become, the more strongly I feel the sterling worth of such a young Man & the desireability of your growing in love with him again. I recommend this most thoroughly.” The last sentence is not at all a bathos which would simply cancel out the praise of Fanny's friend: it exactly marks the difficulty—how can someone be advised to fall in love?—and at once hands the choice back over to the only person with whom it can properly lie, Fanny herself. “And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him.” The way Austen's advice turns round on itself, kindly removing from its recipient the possibility of following it, and hence avoiding the disastrous result of allowing Fanny to imagine that she can delegate responsibility for deciding about her own marriage to someone else, is the reverse of any conduct book. It is more like the dialectical element in the work of another, otherwise very different, Christian ironist, Søren Kierkegaard. For Austen, it is the indispensable foundation of moral action that we “judge for ourselves,” yet it is the inescapable condition of such action that we are not practicably self-sufficient. Wit which can feed only off the mortification of the unwitty is an expression of narcissistic despair, but witless precepts can by themselves do nothing at all to pull anyone out of this despair. To act morally in Austen's fiction is never, simply, to follow a rule.

These are both good biographies. Nokes's account is the more innovative; he redraws the map of Austen's life on a number of occasions, although he does not in every case carry conviction. He is critically and psychologically acute, and refreshingly heterodox on some well-worn issues. Tomalin is sure of judgment, and well able to imagine and evoke the complexities attending the life of a brilliant female author at this date. If neither can be said to offer much new illumination of the writing, this is an especially unfair demand to make of this genre where this author is concerned. Very little documentation survives which would help us to know anything of the only subject about which, in the end, a reader of a life of Austen can be brought to care: where on earth did writing like this come from? It sometimes seems that the production of literary biographies is currently determined less by how much new there is to say—which might indicate a couple of medium-sized essays—than by what is felt to be an appropriately honorific bulk and frequency. However unpromising the terrain, however limited the resources, some people, it appears, are just too important not to have a new book about their life written with some regularity. Nevertheless, there is a value in regularly renewed scrutiny of the available evidence. When these reassessments are conducted with the sceptical attentiveness of David Nokes or with the intelligent sympathy of Claire Tomalin, the process begins to seem worth while.

Nigel Nicolson (review date 27 September 1997)

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SOURCE: Nicolson, Nigel. “Not Fanny Price, More Mary Crawford.” Spectator 279, no. 8826 (27 September 1997): 41-2.

[In the following positive review, Nicolson compliments Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life and David Nokes's biography on the same subject.]

It is not difficult to explain the continuing popularity of Jane Austen's novels: they are love stories that improve with every reading. More puzzling is the constant demand for new biographies of her, when there is little new evidence to discover. Here we have two experienced biographers re-arranging the same documents with such skill that each could say of the other, ‘I wish I'd thought of that.’ But any new biography must suffer from our familiarity with the outlines of the story which the accumulation of new detail does little to enhance. To discover new territory the authors are bound to reach out further and further from the central figure.

Thus Claire Tomalin writes at length [in Jane Austen: A Life] about Eliza de Feuillide, Jane's cousin, with the reasonable excuse that Jane admired her audacity and drew much of her own liveliness from her, while David Nokes explores every branch of her rapidly expanding family. Instead of ‘three or four families in a country village’ we have a tribe of nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, all of whom were of great importance to Jane, and her early letters are concerned with little else. They hop from twig to twig, and it was only towards the end of her life that two of her nieces, Fanny and Anna, broke through her reserve.

Nokes quotes appositely two sentences from Emma which cautions every biographer not to assume too much:

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.

So he allows himself only occasional fantasies, like:

That night, as she lay on her bed, listening to the sound of the rain on the window-pane, and feeling still the dull ache in her back …


Cassandra folded away Jane's letter and stared down at the wet pavements of the High Street outside.

But there is not too much of this. He keeps closely to the evidence. His main purpose is to create a new, more genuine Jane Austen. Her descendants wished to wash her character whiter than white, even to the extent of omitting from the laudatory inscription on her tombstone in Winchester cathedral any mention of her books, as if they were unmaidenly. ‘Faultless herself,’ wrote her brother Henry, ‘she never uttered either a hasty, a silly or a severe expression.’ ‘Her sweetness of temper never failed,’ asserted her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. These encomiums did not survive the publication of her letters, which contain such Janeisms as, ‘I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me,’ and her comment on some poor woman who gave birth to a dead child: ‘I suppose that she happened unaware to look at her husband,’ who was an unusually ugly man. Later biographers like David Cecil attributed these remarks to the engaging liberality of Regency manners. What they did not dare say, and Nokes strongly implies, is that on occasions Jane Austen could be exceedingly disagreeable.

Claire Tomalin does not go so far. She admits that Jane had a hard shell, that her letters do not contain ‘much feeling, warmth or sorrow,’ and that from time to time she could give people a sharp nip, but a strong personality must be slightly barbed. Both authors rightly insist that she was not the dowdy, sour, humourless, nunlike person depicted in Cassandra's famous portrait.

As a teenager she must have been entrancing, so merry, daring and attractive that it is no wonder that Tom Lefroy fell in love with her and she (as both biographers assume) with him. It was probably the only true love of her life. Her juvenile stories are brilliant satires on contemporary novels and manners. When she grew up, she had no literary mentor. Tomalin asserts that Cassandra was ‘the only person Jane discussed her work with,’ but there is no evidence for that. She needed no advice, and drew none of her fictional characters from life. Tomalin shows, by a discussion of her Hampshire neighbours, that she never met anyone there who remotely resembled Darcy, Lady Catherine, the Bertrams or the Eliots, though she might have found some of their prototypes in the social life of Godersham, her brother's large house near Canterbury.

In all the novels there is a note of profound seriousness. They are the sprightliest sermons ever penned, apart from Mansfield Park, which it has been smart to consider the best of the six, but which puzzles both these biographers. Occasionally ‘its art falters’ (Nokes). ‘She had perhaps attempted too radical a piece of self-castigation’ (Tomalin). The flaw in the book is that every man would rather marry Mary Crawford than Fanny Price, but Jane Austen forbids us that preference. It is the only one of her novels that is consequently unfilmable.

Two mysteries remain. To what extent did she rewrite her three early books 15 years after their first composition? And what caused her eight-year literary silence?

Previous authors have called her revisions of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility ‘extensive’ (Chapman), ‘substantial’ (Park Honan), ‘radical’ (Lidtz). But I agree with Tomalin that the original versions ‘were substantially the books we know,’ and with Nokes that Pride and Prejudice ‘seemed in little need of drastic alteration.’ These are wise and important verdicts.

On the second mystery they differ. Tomalin's view is that the family's removal from Steventon to Bath ‘depressed her deeply enough to disable her as a writer.’ Nokes suggests the opposite, that Jane had such a good time in Bath, as she did later in Southampton and London, that the inclination to write deserted her. Far from disliking the crowds, the bustle, the constant entertainment, she responded to them with relish. There is much in this. The concept of a country girl whose literary ambition was thwarted by urban life, and which was only revived by the rural domesticity of Chawton, is a myth propagated by people determined to make of her a sort of Fanny Price, when in reality she was more akin to Mary Crawford.

These two versions of her life are not too dissimilar. They are two differently patterned mosaics formed from the same tesserae. If you are relatively new to the story, read Tomalin for its grace. If keen to delve deeper, try Nokes for its scholarship. Or read Nokes after Tomalin. It will be like re-reading Persuasion, and give you equal pleasure.

Malcolm Bradbury (review date 17 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Bradbury, Malcolm. “A Woman for All Seasons.” New Statesman 126, no. 4356 (17 October 1997): 45-6.

[In the following review, Bradbury discusses the vicissitudes of Austen scholarship and offers a positive assessment of several new biographies on Austen, including Jane Austen: A Life.]

“Jane Austen,” wrote the Old Master, Henry James, “was instructive and charming … For signal examples of what composition, distribution, arrangement can do, of how they intensify the life of a work of art, we have to go elsewhere.”

This was a common judgment in its day; but for a century we have been upturning it. Today nobody can dismiss Miss Austen. She flourishes as never before. Her books appear in best-seller lists, versions of her work bounce across film and TV screens, in a travestied flurry of balls, carriage rides, walks through friendly woods. She attracts feminist sympathy, romantic identification, theme-park nostalgia, Georgian revivalism, Tory appreciation, Marxist approval, literary homage, critical deconstruction—all on a far greater scale than that offered to the once much-more-admired works of the Old Master himself.

Popular homage is broadly matched in critical opinion. Almost everything James said of her is under challenge. She wasn't merely instructive. She wasn't really charming. For signal examples of what composition, distribution can do, we need to go no farther. The critical revival, which has lasted for several generations, has now met up with her postmodern, classical-revival-in-quotes, folk appeal. The supposedly reclusive spinster from Chawton, who disliked Bath, avoided marriage, hid her writing when the door creaked and wrote small on two inches of ivory, has become a universal icon, satisfying to many very widely varied parties.

In the 1950s, critical attention focused on her commanding irony. “Regulated hatred,” one Scrutiny critic, D. W. Harding, called it, in early challenge to the idea that her work was merely charming. It was an irony that found an echo in much 1950s writing, representing a moral principle of control, a considered resistance to the effusive, the romantic, the sentimental, the silly, that made her novels serious and appealing to those neo-classical, anti-romantic times. Her idle characters lived in a morally mature universe; her best and favourite heroine was Anne Elliot in Persuasion, who—prudent in youth, learning romance as she grows older—makes a late marriage against social expectation, and only when she has passed beyond the powers of other people's false persuasion.

Like the Scrutiny critics themselves, this Jane Austen (still close to my own) was wonderfully and drily judgmental. She flayed just that kind of female silliness and romantic self-obsession that people so often find attractive in her characters when they are brought to the screen. Criticism focused on the remarkable control and moral management of her six great novels, their fine and distilled tonality, their determined refusal of the big bowwow strain, their, well, Jamesian precision—which in turn became a heritage for the British novel, in whose history she was now granted a central role.

Since then she has been regularly deconstructed and reconstructed. By the 1970s it grew important to show how she transcended the ideological limitations of her class, to disprove the general assumption that (despite what she said herself) she did not write about big events. She wrote about some of the biggest (money, economic determinism, the price of poverty or genteel indigence, the nature of property), she understood and criticised the mercantile social revolution of her age (Tony Tanner's fine study of 1986 sums up this revised view). Feminist critics showed how she wrote the “female sentence” and so found a new, more pliable discourse for the novel.

The revival, at all levels, goes busily on. Two new biographies, by Claire Tomalin and David Nokes, [Jane Austen: A Life and Jane Austen: A Life] both highly distinguished biographer-critics, have appeared; another is cautiously deferred to next year, not to overcrowd the crowded market.

The new biographies are entirely justified; though new research sources are scarce, and much was, perhaps wisely, burned by Cassandra, her sister, a lot of fresh contextual material has become available. It shows what critics have long suspected: the social world Austen moved in was culturally extensive. It was linked both to French émigrés and to the Empire (the East Indian Company, Warren Hastings), and it was plentifully filled with awkward family secrets.

The biographies draw on similar materials, but strike contrasting notes. Tomalin observes: “Jane Austen does not ramble. Each story is tightly constructed and covers a short span of time.”

She adds that her world and her cousinage did ramble. But Tomalin's own unrambling prose gives clear evidence and plain points, and stays fairly close to home. By contrast Nokes novelises, surmises, imagines, as he follows the stories of other related families, giving us a livelier prose, a vaster frame, a much bigger historical world.

He starts in India, and turns to the American war of independence. She starts with the hard Hampshire winter of 1775, when Jane was born. For Tomalin, Jane's severe illness at school and her rescue at the cost of the life of one of the rescuers, is drab and depressing. For Nokes it is yet another drama: “How daring the rescue had been! Quite like an episode from a Gothic romance.”

Like the TV Janeites, Nokes delights in balls, theatricals, domestic dramas, flamboyant visitors; he gives even ordinary daily life a hectic pace. He surmises that the ten-year literary silence of the Bath years was not, as usually assumed, because Jane did not like the spa's social delights, but because she did; he sees her as highly tempted by fame. Tomalin delights in domestic spaces, financial problems, above all in the novels themselves, carefully judging the craft of which they're made. While she closely re-examines the nature of the last illness, Nokes imagines the sickroom and the atmosphere of the funeral.

Tomalin's account is the more thoughtful, studied, well-sourced; Nokes' is the more exotic, adventurous, extended, and it is soundly backed with quotations and historical insight. But both prominently quote Jane's comment: “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked,” and energetically question the family inscription on her tomb in Winchester Cathedral (“The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind …”)—a Georgian funerary note which stressed her domestic virtues and failed even to mention her novels (a plaque divulging that open secret was erected in 1872).

“I am a wild beast, I cannot help it,” Nokes quotes at the close. Tomalin closes to the sound of Jane laughing at the opinions of the world. What our present culture wants of Jane Austen, it seems, is not the quiet, gentle writer of sense not sensibility. It doesn't want the regulated hater or the ironist, nor the economic novelist whose main metaphor is money, nor the writer of high craft who (despite Henry James) really does offer signal examples of what composition, distribution, arrangement can do. It doesn't need the satirist of class and pretension, nor the radical cultural critic exploring the transformations of British life during the Romantic and Industrial Revolutions.

What it wants, in a time of post-domestic female images, is stroppy Jane, rebelling against the conventions she also practised, irritable, independent-spirited, provocative, on the wild side. Like most great novelists, Jane Austen has proved herself endlessly malleable to interpretation. She has become an ever-shifting truth universally acknowledged. And there really is no reason why the versions should ever stop.

James Wood (review date 23 November 1997)

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SOURCE: Wood, James. “Sense and Sensibility.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 November 1997): 3.

[In the following excerpt, Wood asserts that Jane Austen: A Life is “a triumph of seasoned sympathy” and compliments Tomalin's biographical portrait, despite the lack of documentation on her subject.]

English fiction flows from Jane Austen's pelisse as surely as Russian fiction does from Gogol's overcoat. She founded character and caricature at the same time, which is the essentially satirical, essentially English approach to fictional people. From her, Dickens learned that characters can survive on one attribute and still be fat with life. From her, Forster learned that characters do not have to change to be real; they must merely reveal more of their stable essences as the novel progresses. Yet at the same time, the first stirrings of what would become Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness are also found in Austen's novels; she invented a new semaphore for signaling a person's thought as it is happening. These literary truths are apt to be loyally forgotten by Austen's traditional worshipers: the filmgoers, the churchgoers, the antiquarians gardening for lost ideological roots, the little Englanders and little Anglophiles.

Austen was a ferocious innovator, and her innovations were largely achieved by the time she was 24. This tells us something about the elusive mixture of application and instinct in her working life. On the one hand, she made the great decisive leap forward in fiction from Samuel Richardson's epistolary mode; on the other, she left behind barely an exegetical word about her aesthetics, her idea of fiction or her religion. We have only 160 letters by her, and most are rather tedious: the futile daily plow of seedless social events. Although fluttering mythologies have been let loose the small letter table in the parlor, the creaking door that alerted the novelist to unwanted visitors—we know almost nothing about how and when she wrote.

But she was a natural revolutionary in fiction; one can tell that. Almost as soon as she started writing playlets, squibs and family sketches as a teenager, she began to find new ways of representing fictional characters: In Lesley Castle, written when she was only 15, she produced an astonishingly accomplished portrait of a trivial narcissist, a woman more interested in the contents of her kitchen than in the content of her character. As a girl, she was already putting out fresh, sharp, leafy sentences. She wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice in 1796 before she was 21, but would wait 17 years for it to be published.

None of these three new biographies swells the evidentiary record, which has always been wiry, thanks to a diet of rumor and estimate. Each book must palpate the same familiar, elusive material. So we begin with Jane Austen's father, a gently rational clergyman, intelligent, sincere, well-read and unusually fond of the novel, a form that still lacked a certain respectability. Jane Austen, George Eliot and Woolf all had fathers who encouraged their intellectual prosperity. Austen, like Woolf, was given the free run of the patriarchal library, which meant the run of the 18th century novel.

The family was large, and George Austen's income had to be supplemented, three years before Jane's birth in 1775, by taking in boys and converting the parsonage into a boarding school. One is always conscious, both in Austen's biography and in her fiction, that she grew up in the earnest haute bourgeoisie (though Jane's mother had noble relatives). Her fiction, which is either celebrated or attacked for being conservative, is actually a strenuous argument in favor of the deserving poor—deserving not because of gentility but because of goodness. Austen's ideal world, glimpsed in the puff of harmony that is exhaled at the end of her novels when the heroine gets her husband, would be an ethical meritocracy, in which the best dowry a woman can bring to her match is her goodness. The best virtues are earned, not bestowed, and are internal: Austen is a true Protestant radical. (The prayers she wrote as a little girl are full of self-denial and correction.)

Austen fell in love once and agreed to marry once. Her great love, Tom Lefroy, was plucked from her before anything might develop (the Austen family was considered too poor). She said farewell to him in December of 1795 and never saw him again. Seven years later, in 1802, the farcically named Harris Bigg-Wither asked her to marry him. She agreed grayly and passionately reversed her decision the next morning. All three of these new biographies agree that those two events shadowed her life and her fiction. Both experiences, in a sense, were triumphs of passion, despite their air of sadness, and might explain the deeply romantic spirit of her novels: She lost Tom Lefroy, but at least she had always known what love signified, and when she rejected Bigg-Wither, whom she did not love, she did so to fortify the integrity of that love.

These three biographies must wrestle with shadows, for Austen is almost Shakespeare-like in her capacity for disappearance. There are, for instance, comically differing accounts of how she looked; her personality to judge from her letters, was delightfully plastic and contradictory. She could be cruel, waspish, satirical and flirtatious. But she was also generous, true, reticent and passionate. Claire Tomalin's biography [Jane Austen: A Life] is exemplary, a triumph of seasoned sympathy; Valerie Grosvenor Myer's is introductory; and David Nokes' is finely eccentric.

Tomalin is the most natural biographer of the three, and throughout her book we feel a watchful consanguinity with Austen. Tomalin reminds us, gently, that Austen was a woman and that her biographer is a woman. She is the only biographer here properly to consider the difficulties for a young female writer of growing up in a household of loud boys. She is the only biographer daring enough to calculate the literary cost of Austen's marriage to Harris Bigg-Wither: “We would naturally rather have Mansfield Park and Emma than the Bigg-Wither baby Jane Austen might have given the world, and who would almost certainly have prevented her from writing further books.” Tomalin's delicate book reminds us that the task of biography is not merely the elegant arrangement of facts (which is what Grosvenor Myer does) or the bravura creative reconstruction of a vanished reality (which is what Nokes does). There is such a thing as wisdom, and Tomalin is at her best when being wise about Austen's gender. She is the only biographer, for instance, to mark the full importance of Austen's profit from Sense and Sensibility: “The importance of this first money she had earned for herself can best be appreciated by women who have endured a similar dependence. … A fixed order had been moved.” (It was a decent sum of money. Austen made 140 pounds from that novel; her father's living had paid him 210 pounds per annum). …

What moves us is Austen's almost philosophical loyalty to truth. One sees this in a letter of 1808, when Jane, apparently brutally, asks Cassandra if she has seen the corpse of their recently deceased sister-in-law: “I suppose you see the Corpse—how does it appear?” In Persuasion, when Louisa Musgrove falls from the Cobb at Lyme Regis and seems dead, Austen writes that workmen and sailors rushed to help, or “at any rate, to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady.” Austen was unflinching. Indeed, the very plot of an Austen novel is rational and problem-solving: a progress toward unfettered vision. Her heroine does not, in the course of the story, really learn things about herself: as the novel moves forward, certain veils are pierced and obstacles removed, so that the heroine can see the world more clearly. Austen is not therapeutic but hermeneutic.

Austen's novels dance with the poetry of rationalism. One thinks of Anne Elliott at the end of Persuasion, whom Austen describes as pitying everyone around her, “as being less happy than herself. … Her happiness was from within.” Now Anne is in love and is pitying those who are not, just as Levin does in Anna Karenina when he secures Kitty. But Austen's point is stronger than that. Tolstoy describes Levin's rhapsody as a temporary advantage. He is in a spasm of early love, which will pass. It is a sublime hallucination. Austen, by contrast, suggests that Anne will always be happier than the people around her. And why? Because her happiness is “from within.”

It is consciousness that makes one happy; consciousness is intelligence, and consciousness is inwardness. Anne's terrible, snobbish father and sister might fall in love, but Anne would still be happier than they because she has an internal intelligence that they will always lack. There is a clear hierarchy in Austen's world: The people who matter think inwardly, and the rest speak. Or rather: the people who matter speak to themselves, and the rest speak to each other. When one thinks, in a snapshot, of Austen's fiction, one thinks of a woman alone, reading a letter, “in extreme agitation.” And even when the agitation is not happy, it is always welcome. Inwardness is a source of happiness. I suspect that Jane Austen, so enigmatic, so private and apparently contradictory, went through life as if she were the possessor of a clandestine happiness. She saw things more clearly than other people and therefore pitied their cloudiness.

In her last days, terribly ill, she reported that she was still able to get up and “eat her meals in a rational way.” That word, so carefully chosen by a woman undisarrayed by death, is beautifully, comprehensively telling. She did everything in a rational way, and her novels are the quintessence of rationality.

Brooke Allen (review date February 1998)

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SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “An Elusive Acquaintance.” New Criterion 16, no. 6 (February 1998): 74-7.

[In the following review, Allen offers a positive assessment of Jane Austen: A Life.]

It seems that the Jane Austen boom that began a few years ago has not yet run its course: its latest manifestation is an absorbing new biography by the British biographer Claire Tomalin. A mere three hundred pages, written with spare elegance and grace, Jane Austen: A Life is a welcome throwback to a time when biographers did not feel it necessary to stuff their tomes with every dull and unnecessary detail of their subjects' lives. Tomalin, who has also written books on Mary Wollstonecraft; Katherine Mansfield; Dickens's mistress Nelly Ternan; and Dora Jordan, the nineteenth-century actress who lived with the future William IV and bore him ten children, displays a novelist's instinct for significant detail and a knack for compelling narrative. She makes fascinating reading of Austen's forty-one uneventful years and brings real substance to the shadowy figure who left behind no diary, no clear portrait, and all too few letters.

Jane Austen has too often been seen as a freak talent, a lone genius flowering in philistine surroundings. Tomalin takes a different approach: She places Austen squarely within her family and demonstrates that, far from having been a unconventional or exotic member of that family, she was entirely in sympathy with its ethos and aesthetic—the most brilliant members of a strong, ambitious, intelligent, and self-sufficient tribe.

Born in 1775, Jane was the seventh of the eight children of George Austen, a Hampshire clergyman, and his wife, Cassandra. The Austens were a robust family, with all eight children surviving childhood, a remarkable record for those times, although the second son suffered from some severe defect, possibly cerebral palsy. The Reverend Austen and his wife were unsentimental people who discourage weakness, either physical, moral, or emotional. They were early proponents of tough love: when each of their children reached the age of three or four months they banished it to the home of a wet nurse in the village, to be cared for away from the family until it reached the age of about two.

However our sensibilities might recoil from this treatment, the fact stands that the Austen children grew up to be self-confident and mentally healthy adults, and that the family as a whole remained unusually close. Tomalin posits that Jane, however, demonstrated throughout her life a certain emotional distance and brittleness. Reading her letters, Tomalin maintains, “You are aware of the inner creature, deeply responsive and alive, but mostly you are faced with the hard shell; and sometimes a claw is put out, and a sharp nip is given to whatever offends. They are the letters of someone who does not open her heart.”

“The Austens cared about goodness, but they also cared deeply about success.” Tomalin characterizes them as classic meritocrats, and for the Austens as for the Watsons in the novel fragment of that name, “The Luck of one member of a Family is Luck to all.” When rich but childless friends, the Knights, made known their wish to adopt Jane's brother Edward, his parents never allowed sentiment to get in the way of their concern for his future: they agreed to the adoption, though happily the boy would remain all his life very much a part of the Austen family. Other brothers, too, were fortunate: the charming but unreliable Henry lived high on the hog for years as a banker, although his business eventually crashed and he was forced at the age of forty-five to take orders as a lowly curate. The steadier Francis, who joined the Royal Navy at the age of fourteen, took canny advantage of the new opportunities opened to merit and talent by the exigencies of the Napoleonic Wars, working his way steadily upward to end his career as Admiral of the Fleet.

For women, the path to success was a rich husband, but neither Jane nor her sister Cassandra proved willing in the end to purchase freedom, wealth, or status at the price of a loveless marriage. Jane surely shared the feeling exhibited by Elizabeth Bennett in observing the humiliations of Charlotte Collins's domestic life, that marriage can too often be a form of prostitution. The only young man she is known to have loved, Tom Lefroy, had a family dependent on his ability to win a rich wife, and he was briskly hustled away when he showed signs of attachment to the portionless Jane Austen. A few years later Jane received a proposal from an old family connection, Harris Bigg-Wither. Bigg-Wither, younger than she by several years, was the brother of two of her dearest friends, the possessor of a fortune and the heir to considerable estates. Jane immediately accepted his proposal:

Jane would now become the future mistress of a large Hampshire house and estate, only a few miles from her birthplace, and close to her brother James. She would be almost as grand as Elizabeth Austen [her brother Edward's wife] at Godmersham. She would be able to ensure the comfort of her parents to the end of their days, and give a home to Cassandra. She would probably be in a position to help her brothers in their careers. She would be surrounded by dear sisters-in-law and friends. She would be a kindly mistress to the estate workers. She would have children of her own. All these thoughts must have rushed through her head, each one like a miracle, offerings of happiness she had given up expecting.

The temptations must have been almost overpowering. Yet the next morning she sought out Harris and told him with consternation she had decided that she could not, in fact, become his wife. After that, she seems, like her sister, to have ceased to think of marriage, to accept a future in which she would be utterly dependent on her family's uncertain fortunes, made especially uncertain by the Church of England's policy of providing no pensions for widows and children of the clergy.

It is marvelously refreshing these days to read a serious study of a woman novelist in which there is not to be found a single instance of the words “gender” or “patriarchy,” or any other contemporary intellectual jargon for that matter. Yet in Jane Austen, as in her other biographies, Tomalin makes the reader acutely sensitive to the position of women during the nineteenth century. Until she began at the age of thirty-eight to earn a modest amount from her novels, Jane Austen had no personal income whatever, and was accordingly constrained to live a life that was always subordinated to the needs and whims of more powerful family members. For example, the choice of where they should live was entirely up to the senior Austens, and not their adult daughters; hence when her parents decided to leave Steventon rectory, the home Jane loved, she had no choice but to accompany them on their subsequent peregrinations through Bath and other spots that Jane found uncongenial: a way of life that lasted ten years and was so hateful and unsettling to her that her vigorous writing career came to a halt and did not revive itself until the Austen women finally settled in Chawton cottage after George Austen's death.

Jane Austen's personal freedom was limited to a degree that modern women of her social class would find both incredible and insupportable. It was out of the question, for instances, that she travel alone, not that she had any money with which to do so. Even riding was verboten, which made the simple act of getting out of the house in winter a challenge: Jane wrote of the “female foot” with its inadequate cover, unequal to mud, snow, and rain. Village society was homogenous to a degree we can scarcely imagine nowadays: “each cottage was entirely familiar and each face known; any stranger caused a stir, the odd pedlar, or a sailor making his way home across country.”

Jane, like Cassandra, was expected to find an adequate vocation in the roles of daughter, sister, and aunt. Her mother was a lifelong hypochondriac who demanded constant attention (although like many such she survived to a ripe age, outliving Jane herself). Her many sisters-in-law had numerous children, and dependable Aunt Jane was on permanent call to attend births, to care for older children whose mothers were busy with new infants, and all too often to comfort and nurture these same nieces and nephews when their mothers died in child-birth. It is to her credit that she was remembered by the Austen progeny as a charming, high-spirited, and generous member of the family. If, in her heart, her writing sometimes took precedence over their care and entertainment, they were never allowed to suspect it.

While it is true that Jane Austen must often have resented the seemingly endless family obligations that kept her from her work, it must also be remembered that she was in profound sympathy with most of her family; they shared her tastes, prejudices, interests, and most of all her sense of humor. Her brother James, a clergyman, wrote accomplished and sophisticated poetry; Henry was an acknowledged wit; Cassandra, though not a writer herself, was the ideal reader and audience. Jane's nieces Anna Lefroy and Fanny Knight were spirited and original girls. Even the mother whose imaginary ailments were such a trial was also a sharp, congenial companion who took pleasure in writing wonderfully clever light verse for the amusement of her children.

I send you here a list of all
The company who graced the ball
Last Thursday night at Basingstoke;
There were but six and thirty folk,
Altho' the Evening was so fine.
First then, the couple from the Vine;
Next, Squire Hicks and his fair spouse—
They came from Mr. Bramston's house,
With Madam and her maiden Sister;
(Had she been absent, who'd have missed her?).

Jane, it seems, did not come by her wicked wit unnaturally.

While it cannot reasonably be claimed that Jane Austen had an unhappy life, it was a life that contained, perhaps, more than its share of disappointments. Spirited and sunny as they are, her novels frequently reflect this fact. As an astute Victorian novelist, Julia Kavanagh, wrote about Austen, “If we look into the shrewdness and quiet satire of her stories, we shall find a much keener sense of disappointment than joy fulfilled. Sometimes we find more than disappointment.” Yet Austen accepted that disappointment with the stoicism and tough humor that her family had always endorsed. As a result she has traditionally been an impressive, moving figure but rather an intangible one. In Tomalin's words,

She made no claims for herself, for a room of her own, for a place among the English novelists; even her appearance, as we have seen, is hard to visualise at all precisely. The family march towards us, brightly lit in their uniforms or sober in clerical black, surrounded by their children, worrying about wills, installed in fine houses; she is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky.

As Lord David Cecil put it, Jane Austen remains “as no doubt she would have wished—not an intimate but an acquaintance.” Yet it must be said that in this intelligent biography Claire Tomalin has succeeded in bringing her a little closer to us, and a little more clearly into focus.

Honor Moore (review date 9 February 1998)

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SOURCE: Moore, Honor. “A Heart Not Mended.” New Leader 131, no. 2 (9 February 1998): 18-19.

[In the following review of Jane Austen: A Life, Moore commends Tomalin's evocation of Austen's life and times, but finds shortcomings in Tomalin's failure to probe the links between Austen's life and fiction.]

The arrival of Claire Tomalin's latest biography [Jane Austen: A Life] sent me back to the unadulterated fictions that were composed some 200 years ago by the unmarried daughter of a clergyman as she sat in a corner of the parlor—and supposedly shoved the manuscript she was working on beneath a blotter whenever someone entered the room. By the time I got to Tomalin's puncturing of that myth—Jane Austen's manuscript pages were too large to fit under her blotter—Mansfield Park had saved me, also the unmarried daughter of a clergyman, from the travails of Christmas. As toddler nieces and nephews tore open stockings and visitors came and went, I sat in a corner of my sister's living room marveling at the novelist's fiendish turns of phrase and timeless virtuosity.

Next to the bohemian elegance of Virginia Woolf, the high-toned intellect of George Eliot and the gothic emergencies of the Brontës, Austen had always seemed prim to me. Now I realized this was hardly true about her depicting the predicament of a young woman on offer for marriage, or ruthlessly delineating human psychology. What freed her imagination to transform the daily banalities of her existence into Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, books that entertain not only with character and plot, but with a mercurial and Mozartian felicity of form?

Tomalin establishes at the outset the limitations of any close examination of Austen. Most of her letters were destroyed after she died by Cassandra, her one sister and lifelong companion. Others were preserved for decades by her brother Sir Francis Austen, Admiral of the Fleet, but his daughter disposed of them following his death “without consulting anyone else.” A mere 160 remain from the pen of the writer herself (“sharpening stones against which she polished the small knives of her prose”), along with a few early notebooks, manuscripts and papers. Aside from letters by other family members, and a niece's diary, there is nothing except a memoir by James-Edward Austen-Leigh, a great nephew who barely knew her, and a biographical note by her brother and literary agent, Henry, famously declaring his sister to have led “not by any means a life of event.”

Of course, these days when a skillful feminist biographer sets her sights on a subject there is no such thing as a life of no “event.” It has been the contribution of women writers for almost three decades to bring forward lives (and therefore sources) that once seemed irrelevant.

Nancy Milford's Zelda (1971) was the first such book, and Tomalin herself has given us two: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens and Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince, about Dora Jordan and the future William IV of England. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, another of Tomalin's subjects, Jane Austen's achievement has not been hidden. Still, I wondered what this biographer would make of an author whose life lacked Wollstonecraft's lavish and conspicuous tragedy, and who appeared to come as much out of nowhere as did her American sister in astringent genius, Emily Dickinson.

Jane Austen was born during the uncharacteristically snowy winter of 1775, the seventh of eight children and the second daughter of cultivated parents. She grew up part of a “great connecting web of cousins, mostly clerical, spread over the southern counties” of England, and in the midst of a gang of boys that included six brothers and the young men her father took in as students to supplement his modest clergyman's income. Her belief in the efficacy of language did not come out of nowhere—her father George had been to Oxford and her mother Elizabeth's uncle, Theophilus Leigh, was master of Balliol College until he died at 92. In her youth Jane participated in family theatricals and readings. Her mother wrote poems, often instead of letters, that taught the future author a “sharp tongue for neighbors.”

Gradually, Jane Austen the novelist emerged from this family of accomplished amateurs. She began Pride and Prejudice in October 1796, at the age of 20, and finished it in nine months. In November 1797 she returned to Elinor and Marianne, a book she had drafted at 18 or so as an epistolary novel, revised it completely by the spring of 1798 and retitled it Sense and Sensibility. (It became her first published book in 1810.) At the end of 1799 she finished Northanger Abbey. “So in four years,” Tomalin observes, “three major novels were underway; and she was not yet 24.” They were not the writings of a timid spinster who hid her work, but of a professional who shared the process with her closest associates, announcing ideas, subjects and the conclusion of projects—though in Austen's case, as in Dickinson's, the associates were most often family members.

If you have read the novels, you feel, entering Tomalin's narrative, the pleasure of returning to a place where you once had a really good time. There are impoverished clerics, balls in country houses, ladies of great wealth who bestow largess and surname on young men, pairs of contrasting sisters, handsome strangers new in the neighborhood, and marriages prevented because of economic reality. Because you've read Austen, you can also feel the comic possibilities of each situation.

But there are elements in the biography that the novelist did not treat. Among them is a wild cousin who married a French count later guillotined in the Terror. More central to her own development is the fact that Austen and her siblings were sent as infants to a wet nurse in the village until they were “old enough to be easily managed at home.” This Tomalin sees as a source of Austen's later vulnerability.

Most significantly, in real life the heroine's broken heart is not mended. When Austen, at 21, met Tom Lefroy, the visiting cousin of friends, and they fell in love dancing together, Lefroy's family quickly spirited him away, knowing it was impossible for a young man without inheritance to marry a penniless woman. Taking note that Austen had just finished a draft of Sense and Sensibility, Tomalin makes a lovely moment of Austen's romantic disappointment: “We can't help knowing that her personal story will not go in the direction she is imagining … that, as it turned out, it was not Tom Lefroy or anyone like him, who became her adventure, but the manuscript upstairs.” When, at 27, she accepted Harris Bigg-Wither's proposal in the evening, only to change her mind the next morning, there was no Mr. Darcy waiting in the wings.

The woman whose romantic comedies end in security for her heroines lived a precarious life. Tomalin explains, for instance, the novelist's 10-year silence after the composition of Northanger Abbey. With three novels written, Jane was “well-embarked on the road to success” when her parents precipitately decided to give up the parsonage where she had always lived and move to Bath, a place she detested. Having no money of her own, she had no choice but to go along, and the consequence was a siege of depression that made it impossible to do the only thing that gave her an illusion of control over her circumstances. She did not resume writing until 1809.

Tomalin vividly describes the emptying of the parsonage, the dividing of beloved objects, and the accompanying resentments culminating in the loss of the “particular working conditions that allowed her to abstract herself from the daily life going on around her.” She then tracks Jane visiting this relation and that, moving with her parents from one Bath rental to another, always dependent on others: “She must have felt like an awkward parcel.”

It is in employing the novels to illuminate Austen's interior life that the biographer falters. No number of letters captures the essence and subtlety of an artist's being the way her work does. Thus it is fair to speculate from the relationship between Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility that Jane's rapport with her sister Cassandra was not as ideal as the available evidence allows, and from Miss Bates in Emma how she felt about being a poor relation.

Or take the beginning of Persuasion. The widowed Sir Walter Elliot rents out his grand house and moves with his two unmarried daughters to Bath. Anne Elliot, 27 years old, still regrets having eight years before rejected, on the advice of others, an impoverished suitor. Austen must have tapped her own feelings of loss in fashioning the emotions her heroine felt.

Granted, Austen was not fundamentally an autobiographical writer. “The world of her imagination,” as Tomalin puts it, “was separate and distinct from the world she inhabited.” Like all writers, though, she drew on her personal experience to create the environment in which her characters came alive. Tomalin alludes anecdotally to parallels between the novelist and her characters, but she never ventures to imagine how Austen's creative intelligence sorted and rearranged the events of her own life in giving us an Anne Elliot or a Fanny Price. Nor does she gamble at deconstructing the vitality of an Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet to paint a fuller portrait of her subject than existing archives permit.

In the end, the Jane Austen who emerges from Claire Tomalin's richly peopled and evocative context is peculiarly elusive and frustratingly thin. We have the woman writer and her situation, but not the genius and the workings of her mind.

Marilyn Butler (review date 5 March 1998)

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SOURCE: Butler, Marilyn. “Simplicity.” London Review of Books 20, no. 5 (5 March 1998): 3, 5-6.

[In the following excerpt, Butler praises Jane Austen: A Life, but finds shortcomings in Tomalin's failure to examine the influence of contemporary literary works on Austen's development as a mature writer.]

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 [in Jane Austen: A 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. As 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 she 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 insensitive 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 to 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 as 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 a 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. …

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 1794. 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, Edgeworth 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 Stael, 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.

Nancy Mairs (review date May 1998)

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SOURCE: Mairs, Nancy. “Single Blessedness.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 8 (May 1998): 13.

[In the following review, Mairs asserts that with Jane Austen: A Life, Tomalin creates “a social and familial context for her subject more substantial than most.”]

Most novels, no matter how much I've enjoyed them, don't beg to be reread; and of those that do, the majority rests in the “someday” pile. Some I have read obsessively during one phase of my development and then set aside forever. In junior high school, I raced through a historical romance, Anya Seton's Katherine, time and again; a little later, it was Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Were I to return to these today, I suspect I'd find little of interest in them but the echoes of my adolescent preoccupations with sex and autonomy. But a few—the ones that make me wish I really could be marooned on a desert isle with them—bear reading at various life stages and yield fresh insights and pleasures with each return. I number Jane Austen's handful of published novels among them.

I first read these in high school and again in college. My mother had given me her clothbound volume containing all six, and I recall reading from it, as a new mother, in the beauty salon waiting for my hair to bleach. (This whim, fortunately short-lived, might well have drawn Jane Austen's ridicule.) Somewhere in my many relocations, I lost that volume and now possess only dog-eared paperbacks. During my doctoral work, I selected her as one of my major authors. The other was Virginia Woolf, herself an admirer of this “most perfect artist among women,” whom she called “a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface” and “one of the most consistent satirists in the whole of literature.”1

Unlike Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen was not a diarist, and so we have no daily record of her life. She may have been an equally prolific correspondent. Before dying, however, her sister, Cassandra, burned many of her letters from Jane and bowdlerized the rest; their favorite but feckless brother Henry likely lost the ones she wrote to him; another brother's daughter unaccountably discarded his long-preserved cache of them upon his death. Consequently, we possess little of her life and thoughts set down in her own words, and the reminiscences of family members and friends are notoriously unreliable. Because she was a genteel unmarried countrywoman born in the late eighteenth century, her life has commonly been assumed to be placid at the least, even utterly uneventful. Under such conditions, only an intrepid biographer would venture to create a full account of her subject's existence.

In Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomalin takes such a gamble and makes it pay off admirably. An accomplished biographer whose works include the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Katherine Mansfield, neither of which can be characterized as without event, she employs a variety of strategies to fill out the sketchy structure of Jane Austen's forty years without seeming to pad it. On the contrary, the amount of detail she has the space to include enables her to create a social and familial context for her subject more substantial than most.

The narrative, like Jane Austen's novels, does not—indeed, can not—rely on epochal events for its drive. Jane (so Tomalin calls her, and so shall I), born in 1775, was the seventh of eight children. Her father, the rector of Steventon in Hampshire, supplemented his meager living by farming; in addition, he and his wife ran a boys' school. At seven, Jane was sent away to school, where she was wretched; by 1786, her formal education came to an end and she was kept at home, where, in essence, she remained for the rest of her life. The boys scattered into the world, but she and Cassandra continued to live at Steventon until Jane was 25, by which time she had drafted Sense and Sensibility,Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. There followed an unsettled decade, during which she did no writing. Then, her father having died, the women moved to Chawton, where Jane completed Mansfield Park,Emma and Persuasion and began Sanditon before she died, probably of cancer, in 1817.

Looking at this bare outline, one can see how the myth of Jane Austen's dull life began. But Tomalin enriches the slender narrative with so much information about Jane's large and diverse family that the book takes on the character of a highly readable social history. Of Jane's brothers, the one who “suffered from fits and failed to develop normally” was sent away; another, adopted by a childless distant cousin and his wife, inherited their fortune; the eldest followed his father into the clergy; one served in the army and two made the Navy their career, one rising to the rank of Vice-Admiral and the other to Rear-Admiral, only to die of cholera in Burma; beloved Henry prospered as a banker, but when the bank failed, he fell back on his ordination and ended his days as a curate. All except the damaged brother married; all but two had children, some in alarming numbers, and Jane spent a good deal of time among her nieces and nephews.

Neither Jane nor Cassandra ever married, although Tomalin points out—oddly but aptly—that “sisters can become couples, as dependent on the companionable chat of bedtime as husband and wife.” Cassandra was once engaged, but when her fiancé died of fever in the West Indies, she never sought another. Jane loved to dance and flirt, and at twenty she fell in love with a young man named Tom Lefroy. Since neither of them had any money, his family kept them apart and saw him safely married to a wealthier woman, though he confessed in advanced age that he had loved Jane Austen. Years later, having accepted a marriage proposal from the younger brother of close friends, she thought better of the engagement in the night and broke it off the next morning.

I have always felt sorry for Jane's spinsterhood, a response that reveals much about my personal and cultural biases and nothing at all about her. Tomalin demonstrates, plainly but without polemic, just how dangerous the role of wife could be in an age when a woman could die when “she was thirty-five: a well-to-do, well-born, well-looked-after woman who had married for love at eighteen and been pregnant almost permanently ever since.” This was Jane's sister-in-law Elizabeth, dead three days after the birth of her eleventh child. Several other sisters-in-law died similarly. Small wonder that Jane did not entirely regret her maiden state, especially since, in her household, her sole responsibilities were making tea and toast for breakfast and keeping the key to the wine cupboard. Otherwise, she was free to write, and, in Tomalin's cool words, “we would naturally rather have Mansfield Park and Emma than the Bigg-Wither baby Jane Austen might have given the world, and who would almost certainly have prevented her from writing any further books.”

Although not strictly speaking a critical biography, Jane Austen tactfully considers the relationship between these books we would rather have (and their four siblings) and the writer who bore them. In the absence of hard evidence, Tomalin merely suggests the ways in which the works and the life may have informed each other, but the connections are plausible. A child adopted by neighbors when her mother died, for instance, together with Jane's own suffering when she boarded at school, may have suggested Fanny's alienated situation in Mansfield Park.

Tomalin reads all the novels with an awareness of their different strategies and an appreciation for their plot, characters and style that will delight even the “common readers” (and, with the spate of recent film versions, the viewers) who relish the hours spent among the two or three families—whether Bennetts, Woodhouses, or Dashwoods—Jane Austen finds sufficient for illuminating the frailties and finenesses of the human spirit.

Tomalin's narrative involves, perforce, a greater number of characters, and her canvas must be broader than what Austen called the “little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush.” Nevertheless, aside from very rare infelicities, her prose is both lucid and graceful. She incorporates massive quantities of research without slowing the lively pace of her narrative. Indeed, Jane Austen is written with much the same verve its subject brought to her novels, and its tale is nearly as absorbing as they. I can think of no higher praise.


  1. Virginia Woolf, “Jane Austen,” The Common Reader (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1953). 149, 142, 143.

Richard Jenkyns (review date 4 May 1998)

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SOURCE: Jenkyns, Richard. “Janeism.” New Republic 218, no. 18 (4 May 1998): 33-8.

[In the following excerpt, Jenkyns compliments Jane Austen: A Life, noting that Tomalin “is ready to risk some psychological speculation, but this is done with tact and restraint.”]

Charles Dickens was born in Hampshire, but when you cross into the county from Sussex the sign reads: “Hampshire—Jane Austen's county.” Only one other English county identifies itself by a literary son or daughter in this way; but then Warwickshire does have Shakespeare to boast about. Jane Austen's star seems to rise on and on. The recent spate of film adaptations may be over, but they were anyway the consequence, not the cause, of her popularity. Her influence extends even into lowbrow fiction: the heroes of most cheap romances are either Darcy, Heathcliff, or Rochester. (It is curious, or maybe not, that all three heroes should be the inventions of maiden daughters of English parsons within a period of 50 years.) Nor has Austen's accessibility, and the favor of the common reader, put off the highbrows. Her reputation among professors and intellectuals seems to be greater than ever.

Austen's vast readership enables her to be described in superlatives. She has possibly given pleasure to more men in bed than any woman in history. As many men may have fancied themselves in love with Elizabeth Bennet as with Claudia Schiffer. Pride and Prejudice is likely to be the most re-read book in English. And more than with any English author except Shakespeare, Austen's admirers have wanted to know about her life, which was famously not very long and not very eventful. So here are two new biographies.

One side-effect of this appetite for the details of Austen's life has been the light that it sheds on social history. The Austens have found themselves perhaps the most intensely studied small gentry family of the time. What may strike us most, in the consideration of Austen's background, is the fluidity and the mobility of English society. Both David Nokes and Claire Tomalin look back to the origins of the Austen family. (And both, surprisingly, go in for the old heritage shoppe business of transcribing “the” in eighteenth-century documents as “ye”: a very filly practife.) The Austens were tradesmen in Kent who made money and lifted themselves into the lower reaches of gentility. But for complicated reasons, having to do with deaths and wills, the early life of George Austen, the novelist's father, was difficult and insecure. Still, he got himself to Oxford and into a college fellowship; he was handsome and he married well.

His sister exported herself to India in the hope of picking up a husband there, and married a man much older than herself. Her only child, Eliza Hancock, was probably the illegitimate daughter of the great proconsul Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal. She in turn was to marry first a French count who lost his head in the Terror, and then her first cousin, Jane Austen's brother Henry. Jane's mother, Cassandra Leigh, came of more aristocratic stock. The family seat, Stoneleigh Abbey, is a baroque mansion of palatial size. There was a barony in the family, and Jane was also related through the Leighs to the Duke of Chandos, one of the grandest grandees in the realm. But grand connections did not mean grand living, and she and her parents were short of money for most of their lives.

The same fluidity can be seen in the fortunes of her brothers' descendants. From her eldest brother James, who was regarded in his youth as the literary one in the family, comes a dynasty of clergymen, dons, and civil servants, with at least one author of a published book in each of the next five generations; this branch of the family provides us with almost all the information we have about Jane, outside her own letters and writings. Another brother, Edward, who was adopted by a rich childless couple called Knight, rose into the upper gentry and became “county,” with great houses in Kent and Hampshire. His family declined gently through the twentieth century. (Chawton House, in the shadow of which the novelist spent her last years, was recently sold to a Californian Janeite who made her money in computers.) Francis was the more successful of the two sailor brothers, rising to a knighthood and the exalted station of an Admiral of the Fleet. Charles, despite ending with an admiral's rank, had a life dogged with misfortune; and so far did his descendants sink on the social scale that one of his great-grandsons became a grocer's assistant, another a bricklayer.

Jane Austen understood all this social flux. Her women may have the chance to make a brilliant match, but they also face the danger of a penurious spinsterhood. If they attract a suitor who is below them in the social scale, they may have to weigh the odds and decide whether to accept the opportunity at hand, or to hold out for the uncertain chance of something better.

Some may wonder if another biography of Jane Austen is really needed. If there is to be one, however, it could not be done much better than it has been by Claire Tomalin [in Jane Austen: A Life]. This is a life written with sense and sensibility. Tomalin's judgments are convincing, her style is easy and attractive, her sense of period is good. It is true that she is ready to risk some psychological speculation, but this is done with tact and restraint. Only in dealing with Austen's religion does Tomalin seem inadequate; and after providing a brief paragraph at the end of a chapter, she quits so embarrassing a subject as soon as she can. But Jane Austen was a seriously religious woman, who composed prayers for her private devotion. It is a distortion to underplay this side of her being.

Still, Tomalin is wise not to claim to know too much about her subject, concluding that “she is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky” and agreeing with David Cecil's verdict that she remains “as no doubt she would have wished—not an intimate but an acquaintance.” That, after all, is how we know most people. It is no great paradox to say that we get closest to Jane Austen by recognizing our distance from her.

But David Nokes displays no such reticence. His book is irreparably vitiated by the disastrous decision to invent motives, attitudes, and episodes with a novelist's omniscience. …

What is true is that Austen's juvenilia reveal an often boisterous, hoydenish, sometimes even surreal imagination. This suggests how self-conscious is the chastened surface of her mature work. Indeed, we may feel, if we read the books attentively, that the exuberance is still there as a potentiality kept in check, with the suppressed energy of a coiled spring. Still, as far as her life itself is concerned, surely the puzzle about Jane Austen is that she did not rebel. It is not as though restlessness was unthinkable: Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women appeared in 1792, when Jane was 21 years old.

One way of explaining Austen's apparent docility has been to present her as a Tory intellectual, whose books express a principled, fully worked-out opposition to the tenets of Romanticism. Yet one should always be suspicious of professors who try to turn geniuses into people much like themselves. We have the testimony of those who knew Austen that she showed no interest in politics and public issues. Though her letters seem to confirm this, they make uncertain evidence, since we know that her sister Cassandra destroyed many of them, and the lighter gossip had a better chance of survival. More telling is the witness of the novels themselves. Austen's heroines are intelligent (in the case of Elizabeth Bennet, very intelligent), but none has a trace of the bluestocking about her. Marianne Dashwood believes passionately in poetry and emotion, but she is not concerned with social or political debate.

Perhaps we may better understand Austen's strange quietude by considering the matter of her precocity. This takes us to the central mystery about the facts of her life. We know that in her early twenties she wrote first versions of the novels that we know as Northanger Abbey (then called Susan), Sense and Sensibility (then called Elinor and Marianne) and Pride and Prejudice (then called First Impressions). It was ten years or so before she returned to these manuscripts and revised or recast them. How radically did she change them?

Both Nokes and Tomalin suppose that the earlier versions were essentially the books that we have today. (Tomalin admits that this is a hunch, but Nokes's pose of omniscience allows him no room for hesitation.) Jane Austen is indeed an extraordinary phenomenon on any account, but if they are right, we are faced with one of the most astonishing occurrences in all literary history. Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the most perfect comedy of manners ever written in prose. Sense and Sensibility, a jagged, imperfect, and deeply poignant book, contains in its second chapter what remains the most sustainedly savage passage of satire in English literature: the scene in which Mrs. John Dashwood, in a sequence of 13 speeches, beats down her husband from his proposal to settle 3,000 pounds on his mother and half-sisters to the conclusion that he will be doing very well by them if he sends them the occasional piece of fish or game. Auden says of Austen in his Letter to Lord Byron, “You cannot shock me half as she shocks me, / Beside her Joyce is innocent as grass.” One might add that she etches her portrait of human selfishness and hardness of heart here with an acid more accurately corrosive than anything in Swift.

We thus face the possibility that prose fiction which matched and in some respects surpassed anything that anyone had produced anywhere was written by a very young woman with a rather slight education and very little knowledge of the world; and that these masterpieces then sat, unknown, in a country vicarage for a decade and more. A very few poets and composers have achieved greatness even in their teens, but it is hard to think of another novelist who has flown so high so early.

Well, the adolescent Jane certainly was precocious. Her juvenilia are probably the most widely read of any novelist's. Indeed, she is probably the youngest author to be at all commonly read, except for the nine-year-old Daisy Ashford, whose The Young Visiters remains unique in the world as the only literary masterpiece written by a child. Love and Friendship, a parody of the epistolary novel of sentiment written when Jane was 14, remains very funny, though it turns out that its most famous line (“We fainted alternately upon a sofa”) was stolen from Sheridan, and The History of England (“by a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian”), written a little later, provides a good many simple laughs; but one may still feel about these works as one does about the star turn at the school concert, that a part of our pleasure in the performance is the consciousness that the performer is remarkably good for her age. The teenage Austen was very bright, but she was not a prodigy.

Yet her mature work—whether she came to maturity in her twenties or her thirties—is utterly prodigious in its technical control. Whatever unhappiness and disappointments there may have been in her life, as an artist Austen is serene; and maybe she could afford to be quiet because she had such self-possession. When Emma and Mansfield Park were published, she jotted down her friends' and relations' opinions of the books, good and bad. Nokes sees her as touchy about the reception of her work, but Tomalin is surely right to say that “something like Olympian laughter arises from the page.” More than any novelist in English, more even than Henry James, Austen seems to know exactly what she is doing.

As great a writer as George Eliot was damaged as an artist by the disabilities of being a woman; excluded from what she once called “the Eleusinian mysteries of a university education,” she could not resist the impulse to show off her self-taught erudition (which was formidable). Jane Austen, by contrast, simply rests her confidence in the innate quality of her mind. In Persuasion, when Anne Elliot talks to Captain Harville—in the interchange overheard by Wentworth, which leads him to propose to her—we realize that we are hearing something extremely rare in literature: an intelligent, equal, and entirely serious conversation between a man and a woman. Almost any other writer would have had them talk about literature or politics (George Eliot would have had them discussing Sophocles), but Austen is content to demonstrate the heroine's intelligence—and able to bring the demonstration off—in a conversation simply about human relations.

Her technical command of form is seen at its most brilliant in Pride and Prejudice. When Coleridge said that Tom Jones had one of the three great plots in literature, he presumably had not read this novel; otherwise he would have needed to add a fourth. It is equally hard to believe that so elegantly complex a plot could have been devised by a writer in her early twenties, or that it evolved from an earlier, less masterly version—one of these two possibilities must be the case. The novel is a superb piece of machinery, and a part of our proper pleasure in the book lies in our appreciation of the quality of the engineering and the smoothness of the ride.

Pride and Prejudice is so perfect a novel that it is almost a point of honor with critics to find flaws in it. Tomalin suggests that the offstage wickedness of Wickham seems unconvincing: from what we see of him, he appears frivolous rather than evil. Maybe there is something in this, but the issue can be looked at another way. Austen is always a severe judge, with demanding standards; and in this respect, Pride and Prejudice is not as far away from Mansfield Park as people often think. She wants us to see that an attractive, engaging person may be not only selfish, but also vindictive.

The primary plot of the novel, of course, concerns the love between Elizabeth and Darcy, and most of the subplots can be expressed in terms of an ultimate marriage: Jane and Bingley, Lydia and Wickham, Charlotte and Mr. Collins. The other subplot is formed from the enmity between Darcy and Wickham. These five plots are woven together with exemplary skill, the crucial mechanism being the admission of two coincidences: that Darcy and Wickham, for quite separate reasons, should turn up in the same part of the country at the same time, and that the heir on whom the Bennets' property is entailed should happen to be the protegé of Darcy's aunt. That is just what a plot of a novel of manners should be: an essentially naturalistic situation given shape and neatness by the sort of coincidences that do occur from time to time in real life.

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen's mastery extends into the shaping of each chapter. Consider the very first of these. She will have heard readings from the Psalms in church almost every week of her life: their rhythms, with verse answering to verse, or half-verse to half-verse, echoing, amplifying, or explaining, must surely have sunk deep into her consciousness:

The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth in his handiwork. One day telleth another: and one night certifieth another.

Such are the rhythms of the most famous opening in English literature:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feeling or views of such a man may be on his first entering into a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

The first of these sentences is always quoted on its own, but Austen designs them as a pair, versicle and response, in unconscious echo, I think, of the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer.

These apothegms stand like the two pillars of a proscenium framing the stage. Abruptly the general gives way to the particular; the curtain rises, and we are plunged immediately, without a word of explanation about the setting or the characters, into the first scene of a comic drama: “‘My dear Mr. Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day. …” And the rest of the chapter is pure dialogue, more like what we expect from a play than a conventional novel. (Austen is, with Dickens, the most theatrical of English novelists; she loved playacting in her youth. This makes the censure of the amateur theatricals in Mansfield Park the more puzzling.) The perky inflection of “‘Mr. Bennet,’ said his lady” deftly signals the genre. We learn at once from the tone, as clearly as from the first tune in a Rossini overture, that this is to be a comedy.

The leading lady will not appear until the second scene. Lizzy's name, with the first hints about her different relationship to two parents, is increasingly slipped into the latter part of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet's conversations, so that we suspect that she is to be the heroine of the story; but as in Hamlet or Twelfth Night, the central character's first entrance is anticipated but held back for the moment. Finally, the first chapter is rounded off with a short paragraph summing up the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and the nature of their marriage, a beautifully unmanipulative paragraph because it crystallizes and clarifies what we suspect that we have already learned from listening to them talking to each other. To adjust the metaphor a little, the ironically detached sentences of aphorism and summary at either end frame the chapter, and everything in between is pure “stage action,” unmediated by authorial comment.

Very few novelists compose a chapter like this, with the shape and the balance of a piece of music. And this formal mastery extends throughout the book. We might think of the two proposals to Elizabeth placed in the middle of the book: they are contrasted in so many obvious ways, and yet they are alike as object lessons in how not to propose. The later chapters are conceived as a series of duets between the heroine and another character: Elizabeth and Lady Catherine, Elizabeth and Darcy, the two contrasted interviews between Elizabeth and her father, and so on. Diverse in character, these encounters are nonetheless in the comic mode—except for an instant when Mr. Bennet is trying to dissuade his daughter from marrying Darcy: “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”

It is a marvelous and terrible moment, one of the most important in the whole book. (It was altogether fluffed in the recent BBC television adaptation.) Briefly Mr. Bennet drops the mask, revealing the deadness of his marriage, the emotional emptiness of his life. And he reveals something more: the long unspoken understanding between himself and his favorite daughter. He despises his wife. He knows that Elizabeth knows; and he knows that she knows that he knows. Almost any other writer, having conceived such a moment, would have milked it for pathos. With masterly restraint, Austen allows the cloud to obscure the sun for only a few seconds; and by the end of the scene, which is not long, the mask has been replaced, and Mr. Bennet is his usual, sardonically witty self. Virginia Woolf once said about Austen that “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” This is quite false. There is hardly another novelist of whom one may so readily say, “That chapter, that paragraph, that sentence is a moment of genius.”

Her quietness, and her acceptance of the limits that her sex and her time imposed upon her, may seem the more surprising because she understood loneliness, frustration, and emotional starvation so well. We can see this in Emma, along with Mansfield Park the most easily misunderstood of the novels. Since it is so familiar a fact to us that all of the novels have happy endings, we can easily miss that this is the one among them which looks as though it may well end sadly. The heroine is set up right at the beginning as a lucky, apparently secure person who seems destined (we suspect) to find herself brought low. The unfolding of the plot encourages the belief that someone at least must be left unhappy. Once Mr. Elton imports his bride from outside, there seem to be not enough men to go around: Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith, and Emma herself all need husbands, and it appears that only two men, Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightly, are available.

There have been three—perhaps one should say two and a half—recent dramatizations of Emma: a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, a film made by British Independent Television, and of course Clueless, in which the basic storyline is transferred to the ditzy, tony San Fernando Valley of today. Of these versions, Clueless shows the best appreciation of the book. What it recognizes, as the others do not, is that Emma is affectionate and lovable. (Austen's own remark, that she intended to create a heroine whom no one but herself would much like, has probably done a good deal to mislead.) Nokes is probably representing a common view when he describes Emma as a novel “in which the sins of selfishness and snobbery might receive their just rebuke.” It is true Emma thinks social distinctions important—but she is not a snob. She has no ambition whatever to raise herself beyond the circumscribed conditions of her life by a good marriage. Indeed, she thinks that she does not want to marry at all. Mrs. Elton is a snob, and Emma finds her snobbery repulsive. And far from scorning the dim, illegitimate Harriet, she wants her to share as much as possible of her own experience.

Clueless almost entirely ignores the Miss Bates subplot, but it is the only one of the three films to understand the famous scene on Box Hill when Emma hurts Miss Bates's feelings with an ill-judged joke. (The other two films represent it as a ponderous and premeditated piece of cruelty, which makes no kind of sense.) Clueless recognizes that it is an accident. Emma's life is so enclosed that even a picnic on a hillside a few miles from home is an escape. She is carried away by high spirits and a sense of freedom, and before she knows it, the wounding words have dropped out.

The person who is draining the life out of Emma is her father, Mr. Woodhouse. This is a brilliant portrait: there is perhaps not a word of criticism spoken of him in the entire book, he is genuinely a charming old boy, and yet he is a bloodsucker. For he is against life. Whenever anyone wants to have fun, his instinct is—so amiably, so solicitously—to prevent them. In Clueless, the father is made into a successful, driven lawyer, very unlike the idle potterer in the novel; but the film again understands that the father is needed by his daughter, as the object on which a warm heart can expend its affection, and that he is an incubus. Emma gets her man somewhat further from the end of the book than is usual, and this means that we can observe the joy burst forth from the silken constrictions that have bound her. Even so, dear Mr. Woodhouse continues to plot against her happiness up to the very last page. He will not give his consent to the marriage, because it would inconvenience him not to have his daughter constantly around him; and even when a spate of local burglaries frightens him into thinking he should have a younger man at hand, he wins a last petty victory for his selfishness. Mr. Knightley has to leave the home he loves and go to live in his father-in-law's house.

Mansfield Park is another study of the etiolating effect of emotionally barren comfort. It is the most somber in tone of the novels. Indeed, it is commonly said that Mrs. Norris is the nastiest character in any of them. (The honor ought to be bestowed upon General Tilney, but the genial, lightly satirical tone of Northanger Abbey leads many readers to overlook him.) Mrs. Norris is indeed meanly, grindingly unkind to poor Fanny, but Austen has the moral largeness to pity her as well as to hate her—and to recognize how much more harshly people are judged if they lack charm.

Many readers find Fanny Price too meek and too goody-goody to be likeable. In Nokes's words, “The real difficulty with Fanny Price was that she was a heroine who had nothing to learn. Conceived from the start as a figure of faultless, if modest, virtue, she had none of those engaging frailties, those girlish vanities from which it must be equally the task of a conscientious authoress and upright hero to rescue her.” But Austen is more subtle than that. There is scarcely a more desolating moment in fiction than the return of Fanny from her natural family's vibrant, noisy, slatternly life in Portsmouth, where she has been able to see her adored brother William after a long separation, to the barren comforts of Mansfield Park. For she is relieved to be back. To sit in the drawing room for hours by the dull, slothful Lady Bertram, whose strongest passion is a faint good nature: this is a relief! In Little Dorrit, Dickens tried to portray a heroine who was essentially pure and good and yet somehow touched with the taint of her upbringing in a debtor's prison, but he did not know how to do it; the alleged taint remains a datum, asserted by the writer but not realized in the story. Austen, by contrast, shows us a woman who is both virtuous and damaged.

Austen is often accused of judging too hardly the delightful, worldly Crawfords in Mansfield Park. But Henry Crawford does wreck Mrs. Rushworth's life, and Mary Crawford, in her pursuit of wealth and title, does come to hope for young Tom Bertram's death. Still, we cannot help liking them; such is the writer's cunning. Mrs. Norris, whom nobody likes, displays one virtue in a very high degree: loyalty. Charmless and emotionally deprived, she pours a passionate devotion upon the unworthy Mrs. Rushworth, and when Mrs. Rushworth is ruined by her adultery, Mrs. Norris remains faithful. Abandoning the small comforts of her own life, she follows Mrs. Rushworth into exile. People think that Austen is punishing Mrs. Norris, in the way that Dickens punishes the villains at the end of his books; but Mrs. Norris is punishing herself. She is perfectly horrible, of course, and yet she is capable of a degree of self-sacrifice that, to the Crawfords, would be unthinkable.

Fanny will finally escape from the emotional desert in which Mrs. Norris has wandered all her life. She will not, like Mrs. Norris, remain the poor relation for ever, dependent and looked down upon; and she will find a husband. Reality could be more unkind. Indeed, one may be struck by how much sadness there is in the lives of Jane and her family, especially in Tomalin's telling of the story. Jane's sister Cassandra lost her fiancé, who died of a fever in the West Indies; she had staked her whole happiness on him, and seems never to have considered another man. Jane's cousin Eliza not only lost her first husband to the guillotine, but her only child died in boyhood after many years of sickness, and she herself was to die agonizingly of cancer in her early fifties. Jane herself was parted from the first and perhaps the chief love of her life, the young Irishman Tom Lefroy, and never saw him again.

Years later, Jane accepted a proposal from a prosperous, foolish Hampshire squire, only to withdraw her acceptance the next day. The marriage would have given her money and comfort, but no doubt she said to herself what Mr. Bennet said to his Lizzy: “I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage.” Such are the realities which lie behind these amazing novels, not concealed or evaded in them, but shaped to the purposes of comedy; with gaiety and courage of heart.

Helen Pike Bauer (review date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Bauer, Helen Pike. “The Short and Graceful Life.” Cross Currents 48, no. 3 (fall 1998): 404-06.

[In the following review, Bauer praises the accomplishment of Tomalin's research in Jane Austen: A Life.]

In writing her new biography of Jane Austen, [Jane Austen: A Life,] Claire Tomalin faced a formidable task. We have very little of Austen's writing apart from the novels. If she kept a diary, we have no record of it. Her sister, Cassandra, burned almost all of the letters in her possession; most that survived were later destroyed by a niece. Moreover, the reminiscences written by Austen's brothers are spare and discreet; they commend Jane's virtue and note the uneventfulness of her life. That her life was uneventful has become the standard view; many see her as a quiet and perceptive spinster, living close to home in a small village, who was yet capable of producing astute, witty, often satirical novels, creating over the course of her career a comedy of manners of provincial life. Tomalin seeks to investigate this discrepancy between the narrowness of her life and the brilliance of her work with what seems to be limited tools.

For these reasons, her achievement is remarkable. Tomalin approaches Austen through her family, many of whom wrote voluminously, and though her social milieu. Reviewing the published material and searching record offices and archives for diaries, letters, poems, legal documents, bank ledgers, even burial registers, Tomalin emerges with copious material and uses it to draw an engrossing portrait of the world Jane Austen inhabited. We trace her grandparents, parents, cousins, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, their personalities and conditions of life, their births, courtships, marriages, fortunes, sicknesses, and deaths. We learn much about the social and economic strata of her society, the fluidity of its class system, its thoroughgoing reliance on money. By immersing us in Austen's world, Tomalin shows how crowded it was with people and domestic events; she also shows how many of the threads that run through the novels, both as theme and character traits, have their origin in Austen's own life. And yet, Tomalin declares, “her books are never transcripts of what she saw going on around her. … The world of her imagination was separate and distinct from the world she inhabited” (167-68).

Although, as Tomalin makes clear, Austen had many friends and a far busier social life than we had known, she led a life that was largely subordinated to the needs of others. Perhaps that might be true of any nineteenth-century spinster; Austen's novels include many of the limitations and privations of such a life. But Jane and Cassandra seem to have been particularly called upon by their brothers' growing families. Edward had eleven children, as did Frank. The sisters seemed always to be visiting, to attend to births and care for children, or else to be entertaining the children in their own homes. Either sister might be away from home for months at a time, year after year. Austen's need for quiet stretches of time at Steventon becomes even more understandable when one sees the heavy demands her family made on her.

Tomalin had to search hard for direct evidence of Austen's feelings about these events. A few letters hint at her opinions. Much more is gleaned from others' remarks. Austen emerges slowly, as others allude to her, or mention her presence, knitting her into the narrative of their own lives. Tomalin is masterful at extricating these strands and creating from them a subtle yet complex portrait of a forthright, witty, often acerbic personality. The few letters to Cassandra that survive show Austen's irresistible attraction to gossip and laughter. Tomalin reads their tart intelligence as a safety valve, necessary in a world so hemmed round with family and obligations that neither anger nor even frankness was permitted. She believes that Cassandra destroyed so many of her sister's letters because they reveal the dark undercurrent of the life and the novels.

Tomalin traces with great care the evidence of Austen's life in her works. At first one regrets that more of this study does not discuss the novels. But one of its great strengths is Tomalin's refusal to speculate about Austen's thoughts or artistic intentions without sound support. The novels reveal a series of concerns and a quality of understanding that Tomalin traces to the life.

It was a short life. Austen died at forty-two. Tomalin is unable to identify her painful and protracted disease. But Austen died knowing that four of her novels had been published to great acclaim. She delighted in the early speculations about the identity of their author and enjoyed, once she was recognized, hearing of the pleasure others took in her work. She even kept an album of newspaper reviews.

Tomalin's attention is not so much on the author as on the human being—generous, loyal, sane. Readers have always found a sharp eye, an astute judgment, a genius for wit in Austen's work. In this scholarly, graceful, and sympathetic study, Tomalin adds to our portrait the virtue of courage, the ability to face a life of difficult duty with a cheerful heart.

Jocelyn Harris (review date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Harris, Jocelyn. Review of Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin. University of Toronto Quarterly 68, no. 3 (summer 1999): 796-801.

[In the following excerpt, Harris compares Jane Austen: A Life to David Nokes's biography of Austen, finding Tomalin's work to be the superior of the two.]

What riches—two biographies of Jane Austen in one year! David Nokes begins his flamboyantly: ‘Bengal, 1773. It is the rainy season in the Sunderbunds. Inside his lonely makeshift hut the Surgeon-Extraordinary sits writing a letter home to his wife in England. The livid orange sun is sinking over this dismal region of fetid salt-flats, swamp and jungle. …’ Claire Tomalin begins hers [Jane Austen: A Life] more quietly and locally: ‘The winter of 1775 was a hard one. On 11 November the naturalist Gilbert White saw that the trees around his Hampshire village of Selborne had lost almost all their leaves.’ Her final image is of a mildly vengeful Jane Austen: ‘It is lucky she had so much laughter in her; today, the volume of opinions had swelled to something so huge that they could be laughed at for ever.’ His conclusion makes her sound more like Scary Spice: ‘There was little, among all these precious relics of her sister so carefully preserved, to record the restless spirit of the woman who said of herself: “If I am a wild Beast, I cannot help it. It is not my fault.”’ Take your pick. …

If Nokes's Big Bow-Wow strain brings forth a rip-roaring tale, Tomalin, to cite Scott again, has ‘an exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.’ Her imaginings are more modest, her empathy more convincing. Where Nokes, writing of Jane Austen's ‘mysterious Devonshire lover,’ says that ‘everything about the story is wreathed in romantic mysteries; the place and date unknown, the man himself a beguiling stranger; the love so brief, the death so sudden and unexplained. Instead of factual details, what we have are the sublime shadows of romantic myth,’ Tomalin relates simply that Cassandra told her niece Caroline that she and Jane had become friendly with a young man at one of the Devonshire resorts who showed signs of becoming fond of Jane, and went so far as to ask whether they might meet again the following summer. ‘This is hardly the approach of an ardent lover,’ comments Tomalin, adding cautiously that ‘if it is true, and if Jane had really hoped for more, it makes another sadness in her life.’ In the absence of specificities, however, the story ‘had become as mistily romantic as the wilder shores of Devon itself when the weather is uncertain.’

Tomalin uses her empathetic powers more tentatively than Nokes, and therefore perhaps more convincingly. In a moment of genuine insight that enlarges our understanding of Jane Austen, she imagines her carrying her precious bundles of manuscript from place to place, year after year, and guesses that ‘purely as physical objects they must have caused her some anxiety. They had to be preserved from water, fire, loss, disintegration and all the hazards of life on the move.’ They could be mislaid on coaches, in lodgings, at inns, or lost in the houses of relatives and friends, where ‘there are always maids lighting fires, and children looking for something to make paper darts with.’ Keeping them under her eye, Tomalin decides, must have been one of the unmentioned but essential disciplines of her life. Her book is equally rich in social history. She knows that some town houses had water closets by then, but that one did not expect the luxury of piped water in a country cottage. An improved pump at the back and a better cesspit for the privy, well away from the house, would be enough, she writes.

Faced like Nokes with the poverty of the record, Tomalin fleshes out her subject by tracing people connected with Jane Austen. But her patient pursuit of ancestors and descendants only proves Sidney right for arguing that a poet is not born but made. Jane Austen's genetic inheritance was and is largely unremarkable: for instance, one of Charles's descendants drove a bread-van, a second was a grocer's assistant, a third went to Argentina, and a fourth became a GI bride. Even Tomalin seems to weary of them all, commenting that ‘it is only because of her writing that we think them worth remembering.’ Unlike Nokes, though, she acknowledges the importance of Jane Austen's imagination and reading. She has done her scholarly homework, and speaks familiarly of Sir Charles Grandison, Mary Wollstonecraft (of course), The Loiterer, Henry Brooke, and Elizabeth de Feuillide's letters, a particularly rich source. And as useful background to Mansfield Park she prints ‘An African Story’ found in Fanny Austen's Pocket-book of 1809, with a Note on Attitudes to Slavery. She also suggests that Jane Austen died of a lymphoma such as Hodgkin's disease rather than of Addison's disease.

Although Tomalin's biography is quieter than Nokes's, it is just as driven by personal views. Tomalin argues that Jane Austen's life, far from being uneventful, was in fact ‘full of events, of distress and even trauma, which left marks upon her as permanent as those of any blacking factory.’ Although the moral is that ‘she also overcame them and made them serve her purposes,’ the biography tells of poverty and consistent under-valuation as a family member and a writer, simply because she was a woman. The result, Tomalin concludes, was real and justified depression, and I would have liked to see her write more crossly about it.

How I wish that instead of working through everything chronologically Tomalin had dealt separately with her subtexts, like Hermione Lee in her biography of Virginia Woolf. Jane Austen's mother, for instance. Mrs Austen may have been unusual in breast-feeding her children for three months before handing them over to the wet-nurse in the village, but Tomalin speculates shrewdly from the emotional distance between Jane Austen and her mother that ‘in the adult who avoids intimacy you sense the child who was uncertain where to expect love or to look for security, and armoured herself against rejection.’ By careful inquiry into conditions at girls' boarding schools, Tomalin suggests all too persuasively how wretched it must have been for the seven-year-old Jane to be sent away from home, especially when illness struck. She blames Mrs Austen as much as her husband for the traumatic decision to leave Steventon, especially for the carelessness with which they let James seize loved paintings, and the unthinking haste with which they dispatched the books and the piano that had nurtured Jane's mind and spirits. Jane Austen wrote bitterly, ‘the whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expense of another.’ No need, adds Tomalin, ‘to spell out who was being enriched and who impoverished.’ Elsewhere she imagines Jane's humiliation at being paraded in the Bath marriage market by her parents, writing in sympathetic understanding, ‘Jane was schooled to keep up appearances even if she was screaming inside her head.’ It was this family-induced misery, she believes, that resulted in her three and a half years of mysterious silence.

Mrs Austen is clever, hypochondriac, and imperceptive. She reads Pride and Prejudice too fast, says her daughter, for ‘tho’ she perfectly understands the Characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought.’ And who can forget or ever forgive Mother for commandeering the sofa when she was perfectly able to work often for hours in the garden, being in ‘not bad health for her age,’ while her dying daughter stretched out on two uncomfortable chairs? Tomalin explains Jane's self-sacrifice as ‘proof of a fierce refusal to become an acknowledged invalid,’ but Mother is much to blame. Like so many hypochondriacs, she proved far tougher than her friends, thanks no doubt to the care she took of herself. Her trick was simply to conserve her energies. As she said in later life, ‘Ah, my dear, you find me just where you left me—on the sofa.’ Tomalin writes generously of her, too generously in my opinion, that she helped to shape the genius of her brilliant child by her example as a writer of verse and her taste as a reader, but Mrs Austen never seems to have supported that genius in any real or significant way. In fact, like the rest of her family, she consistently undervalued it.

Although Tomalin does not explicitly say so, the real villain of her tale is patriarchy, that body of assumptions about the inferiority of women that ensured that daughters were merely marriageable and mindless, sons were given familiar family paintings, sisters and great-nieces were denied inheritances that would have radically improved their lot, and girls were thought not to write as well as their brothers. ‘She must have felt like an awkward parcel,’ writes Tomalin of an episode when Jane missed out on a holiday at Southampton because her family did not brother to bestir themselves and make it possible. Her life was in the hands of others. In 1805, Tomalin points out, she had lost her home and her father, had little prospect of marriage, and had almost given up hope of getting anything published. Consequently she was ‘penniless, dependent on her brothers, and obliged to accept whatever living arrangements were chosen for her.’ And in 1808 she was in no position to raise ten pounds to buy back the manuscript of ‘Susan,’ because we know that her entire spending money for 1807 was £50. This represented an uncertain allowance from her mother, plus a little extra from Edward and Mrs Knight. Matters only improved once she had received £140 in 1811 for Sense and Sensibility. Her success meant freedom: ‘now she could decide one or two things for herself. She could give presents and plan journeys. A fixed order had changed.’ And yet what was in those lost letters? Cassandra said once that some of Jane's letters, ‘triumphing over the married women of her acquaintance, and rejoicing in her own freedom, were most amusing.’ I hope she achieved some feeling of autonomy at the last.

Another recurring motif in Tomalin's account is the lack of real intellectual support. She reads carefully between James's memorial lines to suggest that the eldest son, who considered himself the writer of the family, felt ambivalent about his sister's success, and saw it as a claim upon his territory. Not to be appreciated by the family must have been especially hurtful to Jane Austen. Writing was still something to be ashamed of, for a woman, and her efficiency in hiding her manuscripts under pieces of blotting paper is indeed ‘admirable, exasperating, painful,’ as Tomalin says. In the professional world, too, patriarchy showed its power by denying women authors any real income and by damning them with faint praise. Informed by the treacherous John Murray, its publisher, that Emma ‘wants incident and romance does it not?’ Scott dashed off an article that said tritely that she copied ‘from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life.’ How extraordinary that no one recognized the quality of her novels until too late, how pitiful the sums of money paid to her. Everywhere we turn in Tomalin's book we sense Jane Austen's struggles with depression, the way she had to suppress an anger that then turned in upon itself. Gilbert and Gubar were right to name that anger, but wrong to believe it was due to the burden of a male literary past. In fact, other authors were her very best friends. Her real enemies were the material conditions of her production—family indifference, low status, penury, dependence, and exclusion from the professional sphere. Perhaps Tomalin could have brought these themes also into closer proximity, but together they might have proved unendurable.

Nokes and Tomalin write perceptively if briefly of the novels, but largely bypass the vast body of critical opinion. Who then comes closer to the novelist, the biographer or the critic? Biographers examine the person who made the works; critics pore over the works themselves. Biographers work with apparent objectivity from documents and anecdotal evidence, their selections thickened by context and imagination into a narrative. Critics may seem subjective for applying the template of their own concerns or other people's to the novels. And yet biographers are partial too, as we have seen. We are all impelled by the same desire—merely to know how on earth she did it. But there Jane Austen baffles the whole lot of us.

William Scammell (review date 11 December 1999)

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SOURCE: Scammell, William. “Sensibility and No Nonsense.” Spectator 283, no. 8940 (11 December 1999): 48-9.

[In the following review, Scammell evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades.]

‘What is it the best writers do? They infuse the world with their energy, making it more real, more immediate, more troubling than most of us can be bothered to notice most of the time.’ That firm answer to a large question is the penultimate sentence in this enjoyable collection of Claire Tomalin's essays and reviews [Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades], written for a variety of journals over three decades. She herself bothers to notice things in books and lives, especially the lives of gifted women. In the old days ‘the exchange that was imposed on every girl’ was ‘giving up economic freedom for sex and babies.’ Tomalin belongs to the generation that was determined to change all that.

By the time I was 28 I had had four children. The work I was doing [a column for Motor and reviews of children's books for The Spectator] was precious to me because it gave me something to exercise my mind while allowing me to stay at home. You can breastfeed and read at the same time, and write reports and reviews while the children are asleep.

One child developed spina bifida, Nick Tomalin, her famous journalist husband, was serially unfaithful and then killed while on assignment, and a daughter died later of some unspecified illness. Despite all this she carved out a distinguished career as a literary editor, first at the New Statesman, later at the Sunday Times, and very nearly became the first woman editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Instead she turned into a full-time biographer and occasional literary critic. There's something indomitable in all this, and something faintly alarming too, not in her achievement, which is admirable, but in the brisk, no nonsense manner she brings to bear on life and art. If only Jean Rhys hadn't been her own worst enemy. If only Lawrence had had a fling with Frieda and then settled down with a sensible woman. If only Zelda had been more grown-up, and Hardy kinder to his wives … If only writers could be more like the super-efficient Tomalin herself!

Not that this commonsensicalness and tough work ethic dull her perceptions. There are penetrating accounts here of the women writers she has taken a special interest in, from Austen, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti to Spark, Lurie, Brookner, Lessing, Christina Stead and lesser-known figures such as Ethel Smith and Constance Garnett, ‘a great woman and an example to us all.’ As you might expect, there are several pieces on Virginia Woolf—Claire being one of the Daughters of Virginia, as it were—including an introduction to a new edition of Mrs Dalloway. It overrates, in my view, the allegedly poetic prose, and the quality of Woolf's perceptions, though she's good elsewhere on the jealous, love-hate relationship with Katherine Mansfield. I also think she gets Jean Rhys wrong in her review of Carol Angier's excellent biography. She quotes an exchange from the short story ‘The Lotus’ (‘when people have a rotten time you can bet it's their own fault’) and comments, ‘Of course she's right,’ seeing it as an unironic self-portrait of Rhys herself. But Rhys spent her life telling us that such righteous, self-serving types, who love to inform neighbours and friends that their troubles are all of their own making, are the ultimate pharisees.

Rhys was ‘as much a monster as victim,’ Tomalin concludes, which is a far cry from her solicitude for Woolf, Mansfield, Rossetti and Sylvia Plath. That Rhys was difficult in her old age is not in dispute. (George Melly nicknamed her ‘Johnny Rotten.’) That she was the author of all her own difficulties is.

The essay on Plath reveals that Tomalin was once approached by Faber to be her biographer. (She was a near contemporary of Hughes and Plath at Cambridge, and so was her present husband, Michael Frayn.) When the idea came to nothing friends congratulated her on her lucky escape:

I suppose I should feel nothing but relief. It's not quite what I do feel. I keep somewhere under my skin a sisterly sympathy for that young woman who was defeated by the miseries of married life, alongside awe for the creature who rose out of her own death, triumphantly, as the poet of her generation.

That's well said, yet perhaps a trifle reductive in its reading of Plath's ‘defeat,’ as though it was all down to domestic mismanagement. Here as elsewhere, in her discussion of Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman, she defends biographers as being, in principle if not always in practice, doughty champions of truth rather than meddlers in others' bottom drawers.

There are several pieces on Dickens too, on whom Tomalin has shed new light, and sympathetic accounts of George Henry Lewes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Oscar Wilde, Ottoline Morrell (‘Look at them, dear lady, over the banisters. But don't go down amongst them,’ advised Henry James, apropos her bohemian gatherings at Garsington), and William Hale White, better known as Mark Rutherford.

Running alongside these elegant reviews is a fascinating account of her career in London literary journalism, which is in some ways the most engaging part of the book. After learning something of publishing at Heinemann, and the editorial trade at the New Statesman, she was soon nurturing her own stable of bright young things.

Martin [Amis] was unfailingly good-humoured, and, if he was not the smoothest or wittiest of that circle, I had no doubt he was the cleverest person I could hope to work with. And the most competitive. They could be a fierce bunch, Clive James, Ian Hamilton, Craig Raine, Martin Amis, James Fenton, Chris Hitchens, and I sometimes felt I was surrounded by a bunch of pugnacious younger brothers, charming, extraordinary, intellectual elbows out. They were intent on success, as novelists, poets, critics, political journalists or television performers. They glittered with ambition. I've enjoyed watching them all shine ever since. Soon Julian Barnes joined this formidable nursery, every bit as clever, a shade less fierce in manner.

As for the glory years at the Sunday Times, the move to Wapping, and the replacement of Harry Evans by the philistine Andrew Neil,

I didn't much care for the way things were done … The humiliation of the journalists by proprietor and editor made me unwilling to go on serving such masters. I was lucky enough to be in a position to walk out. That was the end of my brilliant career.

She was, indeed, an outstanding literary editor, as the list of names above suggests, one who cared more about talent than the stuff which now swamps the books pages. Journalism's loss, however, was biography's gain. If the memsahib component in her make-up is a trifle worrying, the passion for justice, in words and deeds, throws it grandly into the shade.

Alex Clark (review date 8 December 2000)

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SOURCE: Clark, Alex. Review of Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades, by Claire Tomalin. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5097 (8 December 2000): 32-3.

[In the following review, Clark compliments the “precision” and “clarity” of the essays and reviews in Several Strangers: Writing from Three Decades.]

A collection of book reviews might, at first glance, seem like turgid stuff; fragments of journalism tied not to great events that the reader can grasp on to, but to books that themselves have in some cases faded from view. The pleasure to be extracted from Several Strangers is, in consequence, both somewhat unexpected and wholly refreshing; Claire Tomalin was, and remains, a great critic. These pieces, spanning the period from 1971 to 1995, encompass Tomalin's career as neophyte reviewer, after her first job as a publishing junior, her Literary Editorship of the New Statesman and the Sunday Times and, latterly, as a writer herself, the author of highly acclaimed biographies of Wollstonecraft, Mansfield and Austen.

Tomalin feels that her voice has developed and matured over the decades, which accounts for her title; if that is so, the quality control in selecting these reviews has been excellent. From the first piece, her measured and judicious tones are in evidence; she neither gushes unduly nor slates cruelly, she never intrudes her own personality or prejudices, and she never underestimates the seriousness of the task.

She quotes with precision and provides historical context with clarity; her own store of knowledge turns several of these pieces into mini-essays, particularly when—in the case of, for example, articles on Wollstonecraft, Eliot, Woolf and the Shelley circle, they coincide with her own interests. She is engagingly understated, sometimes knowingly so; a review of Philip Larkin's letters, published in the Ham and High, begins with the admission that they are “an upsetting experience, to put it mildly.” The piece that follows is a masterpiece of fairness.

Linking the book's sections are three brisk tranches of autobiographical information. They provide a tantalizingly brief glimpse into Tomalin's life, from her acquaintance with the young Julian Barnes and Martin Amis to the turbulence and tragedy of her early adulthood, in which she lost a son, a daughter and a husband; another son was born with spina bifida. Something in Tomalin's steely commentary suggests that it is unlikely she will ever write a memoir, a great shame, as it would make for fascinating reading.

Ferdinand Mount (review date 28 September 2002)

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SOURCE: Mount, Ferdinand. “From the Scaffold to Mr. Pooter.” Spectator 290, no. 9086 (28 September 2002): 58-9.

[In the following review, Mount commends Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self as a “delightfully readable” and well organized biography.]

It is a famous passage, but it needs to be quoted in full, for reasons I shall come back to:

To my Lord's in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance. But my Lord not being up, I went out to Charing-cross to see Major-Generall Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered—which was done there—he looking as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down and his head and his heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now have judged him. And that his wife doth expect his coming again.

Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White-hall and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing-cross. From thence to my Lord's and took Captain Cuttance and Mr. Sheply to the Sun taverne and did give them some oysters. After that I went by water home, where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine Baskett which I bought her in Holland and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.

Within all the afternoon, setting up shelfes in my study. At night to bed.

From the scaffold to Mr Pooter in a day. Within a single Diary entry, Pepys moves with glorious unconcern from high and bloody events to the domestic soap. No one has ever done it like he did, and he only managed it for nine years before his fear for his eyesight made him abandon the Diary (or possibly his grief for his wife's death robbed him of the zest to carry on). And almost always, as he darts from high to low and back again, you notice a sceptical turn. He distances himself from the old credulities—here the belief of the Fifth-Monarchy Men that the Major-General was due to pop up at the Saviour's right hand on the Last Day. He is impatient with the religious quarrels that tore his country apart throughout his life. He is interested in household improvements, gadgets, new medical techniques, the traffic problems in the City. We cannot help thinking that he is one of us.

Certainly Claire Tomalin in her delightfully readable new life of Pepys [Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self] (who could write a life of him that didn't bowl along?) wants to claim him: he was ‘mapping a recognisably modern world’; his account of the revolt of the City apprentices against the Parliamentary army is ‘the first eyewitness account of an urban riot’—‘one we have seen on our television screens so that every point is familiar’:

From Pepys's scattered descriptions we get the first account ever written of how young men with meagre jobs, sharp wits and an appetite for experience live and work in a modern city.

There have been other marvellous lives of Pepys, Sir Arthur Bryant's three volumes in the 1930s and Richard Ollard in 1974, but none has so exactly caught Pepys's enthusiastic yet uncertain embrace of the new world, which was itself such an unstable amalgam of fading superstition and rational enquiry. She confects, for example, a luscious account of how Pepys was cut for the stone. The patient is larded with egg white and rose vinegar and given a cold syrup of lemon juice, radishes and marshmallow, after a thin silver instrument, the itinerarium, has been inserted up the penis into the bladder to help position the stone, before the three-inch insertion is made just behind the scrotum. No anaesthetic, of course, and the patient is fainting with pain, but within its limitations the treatment of letting the wound drain and leaving it to heal is medically sound, and, though the stone was as big as a tennis ball, according to Pepys's friend Evelyn who saw it later, Pepys recovers and declares his intention of celebrating the anniversary of the operation with a dinner every year for the rest of his life. He is grateful like country people today who cross themselves when the aircraft takes off and clap when it lands safely. We are indeed on the watershed here.

And in the same way Pepys's whole life was spent on the political, watershed too, between arbitrary God-given rule and the beginnings of modern parliamentary government. What gives the Diary so much of its edge is that Pepys was, as Tomalin says, ‘trapped on the wrong side,’ most of his career serving two kings, Charles II and James II, who wanted to build up their personal power and castrate Parliament. She is less inclined than her predecessors to accept Pepys's career as a given, and she brings out the constant embarrassment and alarm occasioned by his republican past and his contempt for his Stuart masters. He was, after all, remembered as ‘a great roundhead at school,’ who had cheered the execution of Charles I. He certainly worked with enthusiasm for the Commonwealth and always considered ‘Oliver’ a superior master to Charles II, with his mistresses and his racehorses and his hatred of ‘the very sight and thought of business,’ Pepys himself being one of history's great workaholics. ‘My business is a delight to me,’ he wrote, and it ‘has taken me off from all my former delights’—something of an exaggeration, but then that too is not unmodern, seeing how many tycoons today boast of working 100-hour weeks and then turn out to have several mistresses and a yacht or two.

By the end of his life he was talking of ‘we Tories,’ and he refused to serve under William III, but even in the early days of the Restoration he belonged to a republican club, the Rota. And he was decidedly shocked by the disgusting behaviour of other turncoats like Sir George Downing (of Downing Street fame) who, after having helped the Dutch drive Charles out of Holland, now rounded up old Parliamentarian comrades who had fled abroad and had them shipped back to London—and the scaffold. Pepys's own patron and kinsman, Sandwich, simply lay low in Huntingdonshire during the transition, putting it about that he was ‘confined to my chamber by a distemper’—behaviour reminiscent of another Huntingdonshire eminence, John Major, who happened to be having his wisdom teeth out during the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

Claire Tomalin is also more clear-eyed than Pepys's male biographers about his conduct both in the office and at home. The little man, after all, had a large helping of all the seven deadly sins except sloth. When he was appointed to the Navy Board, he simply knocked on the door of the house in Seething Lane that he fancied, spent a couple of nights as the guest of the inoffensive Major Willoughby and then told Willoughby to get out—behaviour more characteristic of Robert Mugabe than Sir Robert Armstrong. When he heard that Matthew Wren had been wounded in the Battle of Sole Bay, he instantly wrote to his patron Sir William Coventry asking for Wren's job. When Coventry himself was on the skids, Pepys refused to be seen walking with him in St James's Park.

Nor indeed were his famous dalliances all so innocent. He forced Mrs Bagwell to have sex with him by promising to arrange promotion for her husband, a ship's carpenter. In fact, when Bagwell is at sea fighting the Dutch, Pepys's first instinct is to pop down for a session with Mrs Bagwell. But when she is past 40, he writes to her husband telling him to keep her away from the Navy Office. He fondles Pegg Penn's breasts and thighs, though he finds her unattractive and suspects she has the pox, in order to get his own back on her father, Sir William Penn. And he is notoriously bad-tempered as well as congenitally unfaithful to his wife Elizabeth, whom I am fonder of than Mrs Tomalin seems to be.

For, though she is anything but blind to her subject's weaknesses, in the last resort, like most biographers, she finds it easy to forgive them: ‘His energy burns off blame. For a woman, it is the nearest to experiencing what it is like to be a man; it is surprisingly hard to disapprove of him.’ My own reactions, I must confess, are often more like those of Randolph Churchill reading the Old Testament for the first time, as observed by Evelyn Waugh: ‘God, isn't God a shit?’

If Pepys is indeed the prototype of modern man, that is not an entirely comforting thought. Mrs Tomalin thinks other Diaries of the period dull by comparison, and so to the modern reader they are. Yet in reading, say, the Diary of the Revd Ralph Josselin, an Essex clergyman to whom nothing much happened except the usual ills of life, I feel the presence of a human, well, I am sorry to use the word, but soul is really the only one that will do. For all his love of music and women, Pepys does have something about him of the automata that so much fascinated him: his Tiggerish energy, his equal readiness to lie and to confess, his voracious acquisition of high-placed friends, his boasting of his fine works of art, his readiness to pounce on any woman in any circumstances. Why, who does this remind us of? I am afraid it is Jeffrey Archer. True, Pepys is a better writer and went to prison three times as against Lord Archer's once to date, but there is a not-thereness that they share.

Why do I feel this so much more strongly after reading Tomalin than her predecessors? I think it is precisely because her approach is so markedly different in several respects. First, the male biographers are interested primarily in Pepys as ‘the saviour of the Navy’ (to use the title of Arthur Bryant's third volume) and in the Diary as an unmatched historical record, while she is interested in Pepys's vie intérieure and in the Diary's unique pioneering record of a self at work and play. Her previous full-length biographies have rescued women from the margins of oblivion—Dickens's mistress Ellen Ternan being actually characterised as ‘the Invisible Woman.’ And here too she beautifully resurrects lesser characters like Pepys's old maids, Jane and the luckless Deb whose being surprised by Elizabeth in flagrante with Pepys triggered the biggest almighty row husband and wife ever had, which is saying something.

This biography's golden asset is that it brings alive all the other characters in the Diary and explains their relationship to Pepys and to each other in a richness of detail that even the wonderful Index and Companion to the 11-volume Latham and Matthews edition do not quite achieve. Tomalin thus provides the perfect preparation for reading the Diary itself.

But Pepys himself never was invisible. He lives not only through his extraordinary contributions towards a modern navy that was properly trained, supplied and officered but also through his addictive unput-downable writings.

And here, by what is clearly a conscious decision, Tomalin denies us our fix. While telling us over and over what a masterpiece the Diary is, she doesn't actually quote from it all that much, and seldom at length. She paraphrases, she chops up, she reorders, but she doesn't give us Pepys's own words and so loses the entrancing effect of the way he runs on.

For example, she records almost every fact in the passage I quoted at the head of this review, but all except ten words—‘as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition’—are Tomalin's, not Pepys's. Somehow this technique drains Pepys of some of his magic and leaves his conduct, when so plainly recounted by another hand, more open to our censure. And now and then the lack of direct quotation leads to omission of the most brilliant detail in the middle of a passage—for example, when the Dutch come up the Medway and Pepys in a total panic sends Elizabeth off to the country with his gold, Bryant and Ollard both mention that Pepys can't think what to do with his much bulkier store of silver and thinks in a wild moment of hiding it down the privy, but Tomalin does not.

Again Bryant and Ollard both describe exactly how the King saves Pepys's bacon when he is accused of trafficking in seamen's wage tickets. In Pepys's own words:

The King with a smile and shake of his head told the Commissioners that he thought it a vain thing to believe that one having so great trust … should descend to so poor a thing as the doing anything that was unfit for him in a matter of £7.10s.

There is none of this in Tomalin.

But she really comes into her own in describing Pepys's last years, not covered by Bryant. It is a touching picture she paints of his retirement in Clapham under the wing of his sometime protégé Will Hewer and his favourite nephew John Jackson and his not quite second wife Mary Skinner, out of the great world but still in touch with his old friends like Evelyn, to whom he wrote, ‘Pray remember what o'clock it is with you and me’ and Evelyn replied that

an easy comfortable passage is that which remains for us to beg of God, and for the rest to sit loose to things below.

Even in his latter years, Pepys had not lost his boyish enthusiasm, nor forgotten how to write. On his voyage to Tangier he goes out rowing by himself and records in his notes:

I know nothing that can give a better notion of infinity and eternity than the being upon the sea in a little vessel without anything in sight but yourself within the whole hemisphere.

No, not quite Jeffrey Archer after all.


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