The Life of Jane Austen
“He has become his admirers.” This phrase formulated by W. H. Auden refers to the poet William Butler Yeats, but it holds true for artists in general and Jane Austen in particular. At the time of her death in July, 1817, Austen had published four of the finest novels in the English language. For these works she had earned a few hundred pounds, one serious and appreciative literary assessment (Walter Scott’s praise of Emma in the Quarterly Review), and almost no personal acclaim. On her death, Jane Austen became her admirers quite literally. Her family constructed memoirs, ignored certain qualities and achievements, destroyed certain letters—in short, did what they could to turn the woman and writer into a paragon of all the Christian virtues. Sharp-eyed readers, Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence among them, have reacted and sometimes overreacted to the eulogy; for the most part, however, the legend of the saintly spinster serenely but incisively producing brilliant novels in a Hampshire country house has endured. With the publication of John Halperin’s The Life of Jane Austen, sentimentalizing and image making—both of which are ultimately acts of condescension—became impossible. By presenting Austen as a real person with problems and peculiarities as well as virtues and talents, Halperin allows her the dignity that readers, even modern ones, have more freely accorded to male writers—Lord Byron, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust. Some specialists may quarrel with specific points of Halperin’s biographical interpretation, but everyone must respect his method of proceeding. Halperin draws usefully and critically on what primary sources there are and comments on the significance of the gaps; he examines the novels in a subtle, never reductive way for links between the life and the work. He makes appropriate use of what has been written and said of Austen and incorporates fresh findings from peripheral studies. For example, a close look at the family tree yields a surprising number of the names used in the novels and demonstrates Jane Austen’s wide connection to nobles, society people, and politicians, as well as clerics; exploring the streets and monuments of Bookham in Surrey yields various details from Emma. Now that Halperin’s biography has been written, Austen’s audience will have the chance to come to terms with the woman and then grant her genius a respect profounder for taking account of her weaknesses.
Halperin’s study begins at “The End.” He presents Jane Austen dying in Winchester, her survivors creating through their tributes to her character (praises which tend to ignore her novels) a flawless fiction, and critics reacting to this concocted sweetness and light. From this narrow beginning, Halperin widens his focus to treat Jane Austen’s age in all of its Georgian and Napoleonic ambiguities and her family in its sociological complexity. Austen was, by birth and education, a conservative person in a conservative class in a country where conservative policies prevailed. Through his careful account of Austen’s background, Halperin permits the reader to see her nature in its context. In her parents’ social positions (George Austen toward the lower range of gentility, his wife, Cassandra, whose family retained a barony near the top) and the details of their family’s life at the Steventon rectory and beyond (readings, theatricals, the education of Jane Austen, her sister, Cassandra, and her brothers), one finds material later encountered in the novels. In Jane Austen’s juvenile works, one sees evidence of both the talent and the temperament that were to distinguish the mature woman.
Writing as a biographer first and a critic second, Halperin takes Austen’s juvenilia more seriously than most of his predecessors, B. C. Southam excepted, have done. In these works completed by her twentieth year, Austen shows herself a parodist, cynic, and critical reader. Halperin argues that the juvenilia shed light on her novels—for example, the sibling rivalry in “The Three Sisters” foreshadows what one sees in Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Northanger Abbey (1818), and Persuasion (1818)—and her character as well. Austen’s penchant for mockery, detachment, and ridicule came to full flower early, as the juvenile pieces suggest, and Halperin agrees with Marvin Mudrick in seeing Austen’s preferred mode, irony, as a defense against other people and against her own feelings. He suggests that toward the end of this phase of her life, Austen, unmarried and twenty, must have been seriously concerned to marry, whether for love or for comfort and security. She would not have expected or wished to remain a spinster, but, given her clear-eyed detachment, she must have seen that finding a husband who would be equal to her would not be an easy thing to do.
In welcome contrast to those who have studied Austen’s novels in linear fashion, as they were published, Halperin sees them as developing in clusters, during two bursts of creativity. He refers to the first such period (1796 to 1799), which saw the Austen family’s last years of stability at Steventon and their move to Bath, as “the years of the first trilogy.” During this time, Austen wrote “First Impressions,” “Elinor and Marianne,” and “Catherine,” which were revised as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey, respectively. Halperin’s account of these years draws acutely on Austen’s chatty letters to her sister, Cassandra. These letters are often cited by hostile readers bent on proving Austen’s triviality or malice: How can she...
(The entire section is 2340 words.)