Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1957

Jane Austen’s novels present English country gentry of the early nineteenth century in such tartly intelligent and witty terms that her subjects are both particular to their time and place and universally human. She has never lacked for readers since Sense and Sensibilityfirst appeared in 1811. Born in 1775, Austen died in 1817, having completed six novels, of which four had been published at the time of her death.

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The events of her life, as measured against the turbulent backdrop of history, were slight. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars all raged as she lived, as one of eight children in a country parsonage, and as she circulated in her familiar social circle. Never married, she became “dear Aunt Jane” to a lively brood of nieces and nephews. After her death, her family cherished her memory as that of a veritable saint, a devoted daughter and sister who was witty and wise, unfailingly kind, and almost too good to be true.

David Nokes, in Jane Austen: A Life, attempts to prove that “too good to be true” is not good enough for Jane Austen. Instead of a bland, angelic maiden aunt, she was a woman of wit and temper, often sharp-tongued, and at times profoundly discontented with her lot in life. Nokes uses a broad perspective to explore the family in which Austen lived and the wider world to which they belonged. The book begins with a vignette centered on a distant relative by marriage, one Tysoe Saul Hancock, a surgeon general in English colonial India. His wife, the beautiful Philadelphia Austen, was the sister of George Austen, Jane’s father.

The story of the Hancocks carries the tang of scandal. Philadelphia’s only daughter was rumored to be the child of Warren Hastings, later governor of India, rather than Hancock’s own. The luxuries that Hancock provided for his wife in England, from his post in the East, were an integral element in her place in the Austen family. Letters exchanged by the Hancocks are among Nokes’s primary sources for the early years of George Austen’s marriage to Cassandra Leigh. Hancock even wrote from India to deplore the reckless rate at which the Austen family grew.

As deeply rooted as the Austens were in English country life, they also were connected with the exotic and corrupt world of the English colonial system. Two of Jane’s brothers served as naval officers in the Napoleonic Wars, thus heightening the family involvement in the greater world. A third brother would marry Philadelphia’s daughter Eliza, after the execution of her first husband, a French count, during the French Revolution.

Jane Austen’s clergyman father, George, was never rich and was imprudent enough to sire a large family. His wife, Cassandra Leigh, was a clever woman, given to expressing herself in verse. She bore six sons and two daughters. Of her sons, one would be adopted by wealthy relatives and live out his days in financial ease. Another would follow his father as a clergyman. Two became naval heroes. The fifth, Eliza Hancock’s husband, was a banker. The sixth son was an idiot, one of the family secrets that Nokes explores. Cassandra Leigh’s family had already faced the sad circumstance of a mentally handicapped son, her brother, who had been permanently boarded with a farmer near the family home. When her own son proved to be similarly impaired, he was placed along with his uncle. Nokes maintains that this hidden brother provided Jane Austen with at least one character, the dead Dick Musgrove ofPersuasion (1818), an object of pity and interest only to his overly sentimental, often ridiculous mother. The perceivable impact on Austen’s life and family relationships of her own brother’s condition seems minimal.

The other, ambitious Austen sons were able to pursue various careers, but more limited avenues were open to the Austen daughters, Cassandra (the older) and Jane. Women of their day and class could plan on dependency of one kind or another, as a wife and mother, as a governess in a wealthy family, as a teacher in a school, or as a poor relation in the home of relatives. Cassandra was devoutly religious and serious in character. After the death of her fiancé, a young chaplain in the Royal Navy, she seemed content in her role of family caregiver.

Jane Austen, devotedly fond of her older sister, was less humble in her aspirations. She hated being poor; she valued money and the independence it could buy, as well as the frivolous luxuries and pleasures Cassandra scorned. It was a perpetual frustration to Jane to never have much disposable income, and she made many bitter jokes about her penniless condition. She envied the estate to which her brother Edward, adopted by wealthy relatives, fell heir. She rejected the possibility of teaching, as a governess or in a school, but also could not accept loveless marriage and its “conjugal duties” as the price of financial security. As pretty, lively, and agreeable as she was when young, she could look forward with optimism to a suitable match with a suitable man.

Nokes tells several stories of Jane’s abortive romances: a charming young man sent away by his wealthy aunt before a serious misalliance with the poor parson’s daughter could occur, an unacceptable proposal from the awkward brother of close friends, and a mysterious seaside encounter with a possible suitor so enchanting that Cassandra was still speaking of him to her nieces years after Jane’s death. Although Cassandra Austen destroyed the letters from her sister that might have told these stories in definitive form, they hardly need to be fleshed out. After all, they could easily be the outlines of subplots in Austen’s own novels and, indeed, may have become just that.

A large part of Nokes’s narration is devoted to the gradual process of self-discovery through which Jane Austen came to realize that her particular qualities of intelligence and independence, her impatience with stupidity and her acute sense of the ridiculous in social life, would find no match among the men of her acquaintance. With no fortune, she could not compete in the marriage market. Simultaneously, she was finding her way into her life as that odd and unusual being, a novelist.

From early childhood, Jane Austen indulged the family love and talent for words by writing stories based on the popular novels of the day. Her writing, as Nokes shows, was not a thing apart from her family life, but an integral part of it. She shared her work with her family and friends, who often returned the favor. Her mother’s verses accompanied all family occasions. Her brothers also were versifiers, and for a short time, two of them published a literary magazine. As time passed, her juvenile literary pastiches and awkward imitations of Gothic thrillers gave way to stories of young women in situations similar to those to be seen in the Austens’ own milieu. Her family encouraged her to think of publishing her work, and in 1803, she sent the manuscript of a novel, Susan, to a London publisher, who accepted it but never took the trouble of actually bringing it out. This text, retitled Northanger Abbey, was not published until after Austen’s death.

Although the suspension of Susan in literary limbo discouraged further attempts at publication for some years, Austen continued to work on her novels and to share them with her family, reading aloud to her sister Cassandra and their mother and discussing different aspects of plot and character. The success of Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) was a delightful surprise to her. The small income that her novels provided seems to have brought her great satisfaction. If her first novels were written as amusement, her later ones were meant for publication, and with critics in mind. Readers of Mansfield Park (1814) will be particularly interested in the story of its genesis as a deliberately sober and moral tale, meant to abandon the light and witty tone of Pride and Prejudice so as to please the sober Cassandra. What a disappointment to find that critics and public alike preferred headstrong but witty Elizabeth Bennet to shy, devout Fanny Price! Emma appeared in 1815, once again with a lively, witty central character, lovable in spite of her faults. Persuasion, which pays pointed compliments to the Royal Navy, in which two Austen brothers made their career, was completed before Austen’s death in mid-1817, although it was not published until later in the year, along with the resurrected Northanger Abbey.

One of the charms of Jane Austen: A Life is the tone of Nokes’s narrative. The even tenor of long periods of Austen’s life precludes surprising plot developments and exotic settings. Instead, the reader will find an orderly, chronological development of the central characters of that life: parents, brothers and sister, closest friends. The houses and villages are described and the everyday conditions evoked. The development of each of the novels within these contexts is suggested, but nowhere does Nokes lean too weightily on these connections.

The biography is accompanied by some of the armature of critical apparatus: There are basic notes for each citation and a somewhat sketchy index. There is no bibliography, and references to secondary works are relatively few. Nokes does not advance particular hard-and-fast theses, being much more prone to suggest than to argue. The portrait he produces of Jane Austen and her family is built gradually, by many small touches of color. Much of the text of Jane Austen: A Life is actually citation from Austen’s letters and novels, as well as the reminiscences of family members and friends. Nokes has consulted unpublished letter archives, such as the Hancock correspondence, which add immeasurably to his work.

The Austens are an articulate circle, and many of the personalities and stories evoked here are fascinating in their own right. Near prim Cassandra and Jane Austen we find the exotic Hancock family and their dubious connection, Warren Hastings, who was accused of official corruption as governor of India. One wealthy aunt, Mrs. Leigh Perrot, was twice accused of shoplifting—perhaps as a blackmail scam, perhaps rightly—and ended her life in seclusion. Austen’s willful and charming niece Anna followed her Aunt Jane’s example of novel writing, but she married, bore several children in close succession, and eventually burned her manuscripts. The Austen family members are full of interest, and the reader will follow their developing characters and careers, their marriages and children, as if they too were walking through the pages of one of Jane Austen’s novels. A few family portraits are included among the illustrations.

The family scandals that Nokes unearths simply add more depth to his portrait. They are not intended to discredit Austen but to demonstrate that she was a complex person who could question her destiny of poverty and dependence. By the exercise of her intelligence and wit, and a pen dipped in the wry knowledge of human failings, Jane Austen earned her central place in her family and made herself a towering figure in English literature. The reader will come away from this long book wishing it longer, and will return to it as a constructive companion to Austen’s novels.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. November 23, 1997, p. E1.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 28, 1997, p. B1.

Commonweal. CXXIV, November 7, 1997, p. 23.

The Economist. CCCXLV, October 18, 1997, p. 7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 23, 1997, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, September 14, 1997, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, July 7, 1997, p. 55.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 12, 1997, p. 3.

The Wall Street Journal. November 17, 1997, p. A24.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, October 26, 1997, p. 1.

Other Literary Forms

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Jane Austen is best known for her six novels about middle-class life in the nineteenth century. Four were published during her lifetime: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion (1818) were published posthumously.

Achievements

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Although she was not widely recognized in her own day, Jane Austen did enjoy the appreciation of discriminating readers whose contemporary esteem has since become the critical consensus. The scrupulous accuracy, complex irony, and serious moral speculation of Austen’s novels of middle-class life provided the groundwork for the “great tradition” of the nineteenth century novel. Austen’s short fiction, written before she turned seventeen, is experimental work in which the beginning writer mocks the absurdities and limitation of the sentimental novel popular at the end of the eighteenth century and tentatively explores the possibilities of themes and literary techniques that she will later develop in her mature work. By slightly exaggerating the sensibility of a heroine, the refinement of a hero, the effusiveness of their conversations, and the unlikelihood of their adventures, Austen makes plain the absurdity of the worldview purveyed by sentimental novels.

Other literary forms

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In addition to writing novels, Jane Austen (AWS-tuhn) was the author of various short juvenile pieces, most of them literary burlesques mocking theconventions of the eighteenth century novel. Her other works are Lady Susan, a story told in letters (written c. 1805); The Watsons, a fragment of a novel written about the same time; and Sanditon, another fragmentary novel begun in 1817. All these pieces appear in Minor Works (volume 6 of the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, 1954), edited by R. W. Chapman. Jane Austen’s surviving letters have also been edited and published by Chapman.

Achievements

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Jane Austen, who published her novels anonymously, was not a writer famous in her time, nor did she wish to be. From the first, however, her novels, written in and largely for her own family circle, gained the notice and esteem of a wider audience. Among her early admirers were the Prince Regent and the foremost novelist of the day, Sir Walter Scott, who deprecated his own aptitude for the “big Bow-Wow” and praised Austen as possessing a “talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.” Since the days of Scott’s somewhat prescient praise, her reputation has steadily grown. The critical consensus now places Jane Austen in what F. R. Leavis has termed the “Great Tradition” of the English novel. Her talent was the first to forge, from the eighteenth century novel of external incident and internal sensibility, an art form that fully and faithfully presented a vision of real life in a specific segment of the real world. Austen’s particular excellences—the elegant economy of her prose, the strength and delicacy of her judgment and moral discrimination, the subtlety of her wit, the imaginative vividness of her character drawing—have been emulated but not surpassed by subsequent writers.

Discussion Topics

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Explain how Jane Austen, working in a narrow social range and with limited experience of the world, could succeed so brilliantly as a novelist.

Distinguish the main characteristics of her novels that differentiate them from the eighteenth century novels that made up a great deal of her literary background.

How does Austen help her readers to become better readers?

In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor develops sympathy for the incorrigible Willoughby. Determine whether or not that is a flaw in Elinor’s personality.

Pride and Prejudice begins with Mr. Bennet’s problem of finding suitors for his five daughters. Explain Austen’s avoidance of making his problem the theme of the novel.

How does one explain the popularity of Austen’s novels with filmmakers?

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